August 05, 2009

Well enough to work magic

The Hypochondriac
by Moliere.
Adaptation by Paul Galloway
Brink Productions
Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre.
August 5 . Tickets $24.90 – $42. Bookings BASS 131 246
Until August 22.

Laughter may be the best medicine but in the case of Moliere’s The Hypochondriac, you would have to say that medicine is the best laughter. Also known as The Imaginary Invalid, this pungent comedy, first performed in 1673, takes aim at those quacks, charlatans and medical phonies who, with their potions, promises, irrigations and evacuations, prey on gullible victims like Argan, the hypochondriac at the centre of Brink Productions’ hilarious and adroitly managed production.

Using a free-wheeling but, nonetheless faithful, adaptation by Melbourne playwright Paul Galloway, Brink director Chris Drummond and a most capable cast reveal the wit and timeless relevance of this Comedie Francaise classic. Moliere drew heavily on the raucous commedia dell’arte theatre of his day and its popular skits and set pieces – involving disguise, feigned death and wily entrapment – all feature strongly in this knockabout production. There are also plenty of slopping chamber pots, posterior procedures, and arias of flatulence to remind us of the endless possibilities of gastroenterological comedy. But the satire on bogus jargon, unscrupulous operators and the desperate and the ever-present human fear of mortality is also wittily apparent.

Designer Wendy Todd has covered the walls of the Space stage with crushed satin drapery to match the 17th century-esque costumes in fawns, taupes and mushroom shades – all inventively lit by Geoff Cobham. The décor consists simply of chairs and the harpsichord and other keyboards for the droll onstage performances by musician and composer Stuart Day – so it is what Drummond and his actors do within these simple parameters which energises the proceedings.

The performances are broad but full of delicious detail and expertly timed. As the dutiful daughter, Angelique and her true suitor, Cleante, Emily Branford and Nathan OKeefe bring laughs to the zany music lesson scene and zip to the romance, the lanky O’Keefe is also wonderfully deadpan as the younger sister, Louison. As Doctor Diaforus senior, Edwin Hodgeman is hypnotically absurd and as his gormless son (and a ferrety lawyer) Rory Walker is well-matched. Carmel Johnson is regal and duplicitous as the grasping wife, Beline, Terence Crawford just right as Moliere’s straight man – Argan’s clear-thinking brother, Beralde, and Jacqy Phillips is terrific in the key role of the strong-minded servant Toinette.

Anchoring all these contributions is Paul Blackwell as Argan. Whether slumped on his commode counting his money, berating Toinette, whining at his doctors, he is excellent. His comic range is exceptional, sharply funny, but never forgetting the forgivable human frailty of the character. In the finale, as he beams with pride at his own mock graduation as a doctor, Blackwell, and Brink’s, Hypochondriac looks very well indeed.

Murray Bramwell

“Well enough to work magic” The Australian, August 10, 2009, p.30.

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