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The Miser: John Bell returns to the stage

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Veteran Australian actor John Bell returns to the stage in Bell Shakespeare’s The Miser, performing at Canberra Theatre Centre next month.

When I heard John Bell was returning to the stage for The Miser—the well-known satire by French playwright Molière— it was proof this gifted actor does not rely on ‘method’ to create his characters.

After a three-year absence from the company that bears his name, Bell is back as Harpagon, a man so avaricious and mean spirited he will sacrifice his family and his own dignity to keep his hoarded treasure all for himself.

First performed in 1668, the play centres on the conflict of love and money, or as it’s pithily described on the Canberra Theatre Centre’s website, a delightful farce about a tight-arse lacking in class.

Harpagon loves money, his son Cléante loves a young woman called Mariane, and his daughter Élise loves Harpagon’s penniless servant Valère. It’s bad enough having a skinflint for a father, but the kids have to contend with Harpagon wanting to marry Mariane himself and forcing Élise into matrimony with the wealthy and much older Signor Anselm. Can love win out over lust for gold?

Harriet Gordon Anderson, Jessica Tovey and John Bell.

Although Harpagon could not be further from John Bell himself, I kept wondering if the cast and crew played on this. Were they down the pub after rehearsals nudging him to shout a round of drinks by saying he was getting just a bit too close to the eponymous miser?

Jessica Tovey, who plays Harpagon’s clever servant Valère, assures me John Bell is completely distinct from the character he portrays.

“He was one of the reasons why I wanted to do this play so much,” she tells me. “He is such an incredibly hard worker and is right there with us at all times.

“He really is the father of modern theatre in this country, but he is first and foremost an ensemble actor and so generous with his time and his skill.”

The last time I spoke to Jessica she was playing Portia in Bell Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. There she was a noblewoman disguising herself as a male lawyer in a world where women rarely had a voice. In The Miser, her character Valère (written as a male character by Molière) has been reimagined as a young woman, a change she says brings a new layer to the text.

“I really liked the play when I read it, it is very funny, but after 400 years the gender politics don’t sit comfortably—both young female characters were being forced to marry much older men. When our director Peter Evans suggested Valère for a gender-swap I reread the play and it made sense. It’s not just modern in a romantic sense of two women wanting to marry, now you have a young woman taking her life into her own hands and pursuing her own career.”

Harriet Gordon Anderson and Jessica Tovey.

Jessica explains how that changes the dynamic on stage too. “Harpagon trusts her and takes advice from someone much younger than himself. To a certain extent I drew on the relationship between Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin.”

With that surprising revelation I ask Jessica if the production makes other comparisons with other contemporary figures.

“We had a lot of conversations about how easy it is to see greed in the modern light of the ‘one per cent’, and names like Murdoch and Trump certainly came up, but we don’t push those comparisons. For all the greed on display, it also has some beautiful ideas about family and what it means to love.”

Bringing this classic French production to the stage is a new translation by Australian playwright, Justin Fleming, with a liberal dose of the Australian vernacular sprinkled in.

“Just when your ear is lost in verse, Justin shakes you out with a line that is so very Australian and funny.

“Just like with Valère’s gender-swap it is audacious but still sits with the classic text. Hearing certain dialogue come out of a young woman’s mouth tells us a lot about how we think about power.”

the essentials

What: Bell Shakespeare’s The Miser
Where: The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre
When: 11-20 April 2019
How much: Adults $63.50 – $77.50, under 18s and concessions $42.50 – $65.50
Tickets and more information: canberratheatrecentre.com.au

Photography: Prudence Upton. All images supplied. 

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