When the abusive, drunken woodcutter Sganarelle beats his wife one time too many, she takes advantage of passing strangers looking for a doctor to cure a young woman’s mysterious illness. Telling them she knows just the man, an eccentric but renowned man of medicine, sets the ball rolling on an absurd adventure of lust, remorse, and blagging it. Exchange Theatre, a French company based in London, have adapted Moliere’s The Doctor In Spite of Himself into a 75-minute contemporary version loaded with metatheatre, energy and good leading performances from a French cast. Plenty of slapstick, detailed design and Shakespearian influence make this a fun, easy to watch adaptation of the French classic.
Actor-director David Furlong plays Sganarelle with a goofy, watchable charm. His undeniable charisma is at odds with the unlikeable character, though his comeuppance and subsequent reform are a somewhat satisfying narrative despite the anti-feminist premise from the 1660s. Furlong is by far the strongest in the cast, but the others are generally good. Anita Adam Gabay as the mostly mute Lucinda exudes a sweet innocence, particularly in the opening montage where she discovers her betrothal to a man she doesn’t love. Matt Mella is the hilariously dumb Lucas, able to evoke laughter with a well-timed pause and a blank look. Some of the actors find it hard to connect to the language in English at times, but these jarring moments are fairly infrequent.
The edited plot occasionally feels rushed and overly compact, though it’s easy to follow and the translation uses relatively modern English. The excused wife beating is uncomfortably old fashioned, but at least it’s ridiculed – along with medicine and the gullibility of the upper classes. These themes translate fairly well to the modern day and English culture, especially considering the Shakespeare-esque comedy sequences that are likely to have drawn on the same commedia del’arte heritage that Shakespeare did. Furlong updates even further by adding in discreetly funny elements of self-reference, even if they don’t always work. The bust of Moliere as a weapon is cute, but characters dictating text to others from an anthology of Moliere plays isn’t as effective and causes energy to drop.
The design, presumably also by Furlong, incorporates an Elizabethan stage-within-a-stage to emphasise the metatheatre and clarify location. It’s clever and looks great, though it causes some difficulties with sightlines and narrows the playing area. Furlong’s overarching concept of using the metatheatre to create distance is a strong one what with its acknowledgment the absurdity of the story and the plot points that don’t work in a present day context.
This production of The Doctor in Spite of Himself is a funny, palatable adaptation of Moliere for London audiences. It’s a good laugh, a good length and has good performances. The company’s talent and vision is highly commendable and deserving of larger production values; their commitment to bringing audiences high quality French theatre in intimate venues makes them one to watch.
The Doctor in Spite of Himself runs through 17 July with performances in both French and English.
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