Review: The Literati (Bell Shakespeare / Griffin Theatre Company)

griffinVenue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), May 27 – Jul 16, 2016
Playwright: Justin Fleming (after Molière)
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Caroline Brazier, Gareth Davies, Jamie Oxenbould, Kate Mulvany, Miranda Tapsell
Image by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
There are two halves to the family in Justin Fleming’s The Literati. Philomena and her elder daughter Amanda have aspirations for a sophisticated existence, both enamoured with books and language, while Christopher and younger daughter Juliet are of a simpler ilk, down-to-earth like true blue Aussies never to be caught dead with tickets on themselves. The play is about pretension, and the meaning of knowledge. We explore what it is to be good people, in a world where values are easily misplaced and ideas about virtue are unstable and skewed. Its message is uncomplicated, with a plot that proves to be entirely predictable, but The Literati is gorgeously written, with inexhaustible wit permeating every rhyming couplet in this thoughtful adaptation of Les Femmes Savantes by Molière. The jokes come fast and furious, along with inspired ruminations about diverse subjects including romance, intellectualism, purity and class.

Characters in The Literati are archetypal, but convenient moralistic jabs at “the bad guys” are thankfully few. The play wrestles with the problematic duo of Philomena and Amanda, shallow on one hand, but admirably ambitious on the other. Their desires are noble, but their mode of pursuance is misguided. The play sets up an old-fashioned dichotomy of pure and impure, but allows itself to negotiate between the two, so that we achieve a more textured understanding of good and bad within the story. Director Lee Lewis makes the appropriate decision of placing effect before depth, for a work that has nothing unusual to say but has very impressive ways of expressing its beliefs. The comedy is often flamboyant, but Fleming’s exquisite words are always in the spotlight, full of evocative power and mischievous vigour. The production is buoyant from start to finish, and although occasionally repetitious with its methods of eliciting laughter, we are kept engrossed in its electrifying showmanship.

Playing Christopher and Clinton is the one endearing Jamie Oxenbould, convincing and dynamic in his diverse roles. A memorable sequence features the actor alone on a revolving stage performing with meticulous clarity, and an exuberant sense of absurdity, both his characters in passionate dialogue with each other, completely absorbent of our attention, astonishment and adoration. Gareth Davies and Kate Mulvany offer up very broad humour with outlandish interpretations of their caricatures, finding every opportunity to perform their unrestrained comedy to a very appreciative and delighted crowd.

People in The Literati fight over the redundancy of words and culture, when notions of style are not validated by substance. The moral of Molière’s story is neither controversial nor surprising, but we are captivated by the production’s theatricality and the resonance of its language. In some ways, the show defeats its own argument, for what keeps us enthralled is not its idealistic core, but the talent that emanates from it. We fall in love with its gestures and articulations, but pay little heed to its very point of contention. We can look at art without the need for a presumed frame of reference or an indication of something behind, something deeper. Art is not a means to an end, but a sacred entity meaningful on its own terms. “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”