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Bell Shakespeare Play: The School for Wives

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by Rebecca (subscribe)
Uni student studying English Literature and French – loves reading, writing and exploring Sydney's diverse offerings, old and new.
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Molière's classic comedy is reworked to great effect
Take one young peasant girl, raise her in a remote convent far from the temptations of society and only marry her once you are assured her ignorance and stupidity will keep her from ever making a fool of you with other men. A perfect plan for the perfect wife – or so thinks Arnolde, the farcically chauvinistic protagonist of Bell Shakespeare's outstanding new production of The School for Wives.

Translated by Justin Fleming and with Lee Lewis as director, Molière's famous 17th century comedy is brought forward in time to 1920s Paris. Reminiscent of the era's silent cinema, black and white text projections set the scene with 'Later that night…' and 'In an alley', while the inventive stage design evokes the sense of looking into a film set or rehearsal space – step ladders are substituted for tables, doors and walls are wheeled about and bare scaffolding poses as a balcony. Though this may initially appear a chaotic alternative to traditional sets, the use of the stage space is finely choreographed and works to provide a dynamic spectacle, engaging the audience's imagination from the opening's comedic mime to the play's surprise conclusion.

Many of the scenes are truly laugh-out-loud. Pitched and timed perfectly, the live music and sound effects by the ingenious Mark Jones (on the piano, cymbals, kazoo and other instruments – sometimes two or three at once), enhance the comedy throughout. During last Friday's performance, even John Adam, as Arnolde, had to turn away momentarily to stop himself from joining the audience in laughter. Nevertheless, Adam's overall performance is a stand-out – an otherwise faultless portrayal of the uptight Arnolde and his deadpan sarcasm. While the deliveries of one or two of the other actors occasionally slip into a mechanical tone, Adam keeps the rhyming lines of dialogue fresh and lively. Andrew Johnston and Alexandra Aldrich must also be mentioned for their hilarious representation of the Italian butler-and-maid duo, lending just the right amount of slapstick and bawdy humour to the play.

Underlying the comedic elements are some deeper thematic concerns – ideas of innocence and manipulation, pride and reputation. Is Arnolde's plan as fool-proof as he thinks? Does Agnes, the girl groomed from the age of four, stay tethered to an obedient life of embroidery and prayer? Not once she has fallen in love with somebody else!

Expect surprising twists and comic wit at every turn – this is Molière revisited in an altogether vibrant and innovative production.

Bell Shakespeare's other productions this year, the tragedies Macbeth and The Duchess of Malfi, were also highly impressive. Their 2013 season of Henry 4, Phèdre and The Comedy of Errors will undoubtedly be equally as good, if not better! Why not buy a season package and see all three?

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Why? See a vibrant and innovative reworking of Molière's classic comedy
When: Start times vary, the performance runs for 2 hours and 40 minutes including interval
Where: Sydney Opera House Playhouse
Cost: Tickets from $33 to $72
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