x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Molière mores for our times

Dubai's amateur theatre group stages Moliere's The Would-Be Gentleman in a way that shows not much as changed in three centuries.

Arjun Burman as Cleonte and Disha Joseph as Lucile in Moliere's The Would-Be Gentleman.
Arjun Burman as Cleonte and Disha Joseph as Lucile in Moliere's The Would-Be Gentleman.

Is it depressing that The Would-be Gentleman, a play by the French satirist Molière, still retains relevancy today with its observations about human nature? Or was it merely canny enough to portray French society in 1670 in a way that retains so many truisms today? It was certainly an apt choice of play by the Dubai amateur theatre group Theatrics. Its hilarious production raised the question of what vast riches can and cannot buy, and on the whole showed that very little has changed since the 17th century.

Molière's main character is Monsieur Jourdain, the would-be gentleman of the title. Jourdain is an aspiring middle-class merchant with plenty of money in the bank but not enough social clout to mingle with the French aristocracy as he so desperately desires. Jourdain refers to those on the rungs above him on the social ladder as "people of quality", and it is his devout intention to better himself so he can mix with such sorts.

To begin with, he employs a music master and a dance master. "He pays well, and that's what we need in these times of recession," remarks the former to the latter in the opening scene of this production, a line that drew wry laughter from the audience at the Dubai Community Theatre & Arts Centre. Then comes a fencing instructor; after him a philosopher. "I am crazy to be a scholar," says Jourdain, who then refuses to learn logic, ethics or physics because they don't sound "pretty" enough. "Let's learn spelling," announces the merchant. It is left to the audience to imagine how such a towering intellect made enough money to employ so many staff and prance around in silk dressing gowns in the first place.

Nishant Jaiswal played Jourdain, and did so with as much absurdity as the role demands. He puffed out his chest and paraded around the stage in stockings, and pulled tortured facial expressions when running through his first vowel lesson as if he had a face made of putty. The play diverted somewhat from the original Molière version when, during a visit from Jourdain's dressmaker, several of the 21-strong cast leapt into a dance performance of Hey Big Spender. As if to mark the point, Jourdain strutted like a peacock in a new silk outfit, designed ahead of a visit from a marquise with whom he has fallen in love.

Enter Jourdain's wife, regally played by Malavika Varadan, who loses no opportunity to tell her husband how ridiculous he looks. "Shut up, wife" is the most common response from Jourdain, who continues to plan for the marquise's visit in secret. This he does with the help of the unscrupulous Count Dorante, who takes Jourdain's money while professing love to the marquise. On the back-burner is a plot involving Jourdain's daughter, Lucile, and her suitor, Cléonte, who honourably swears he is not a gentleman to Jourdain and so is denied her hand. Cue a farcical few scenes where Cléonte dresses up as a maharaja to try to win his prospective father-in-law over. The story, never a hard one to follow, ends with not one, but two planned marriages and Jourdain looking as preposterous as ever.

The Would-be Gentleman is a fairytale-like parable, written just over a century before the French Revolution, when upper-class wealth was dwindling and other social classes had started to look for more than their allotted role in society. The characters that Molière drew are clowning symbols of this: the desperate social climber, the impoverished aristocrat, the cross wife and the wistful daughter. They are characters that you can find in any number of fairy tales written since then and they remain staples, in some format, of a good story today.

Theatrics's production, performed in aid of the Dubai Autism Center, was also a beacon for any amateur theatre organisation. Musical and colourful, it drew laughs throughout despite the nerves of the director Chandra Chandrasekhar. "I wondered how the actors in Theatrics, now predominantly from the Facebook generation, would respond to Molière," he said of the show. Happily, such worries proved groundless.