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The Hypochondriac

by on 23 October 2022

Bedpan Humour

The Hypochondriac

by Molière adapted by Richard Bean

Richmond Shakespeare Society at the Mary Wallace Theatre until 29th October

Review by Gill Martin

Put on your scrubs and surgical mask to enter this household of illness, imagined by Molière in The Hypochondriac.

Set in the era of Louis XIV’s of France this classic farce pokes fun at a man obsessed by his own imaginary illnesses.  And at pompous doctors who take advantage of gullible patients as they practice their art.  It’s a clever scathing satire brim-full of trickery, greed and strong characters. It’s no place for the squeamish as there’s a bottomless joke pit of anal examinations, enemas, stool examination and urine drinking in director Maxina Cornwell’s production for the Richmond Shakespeare Society.

First line is not so much a line but an explosion of wheezes, coughs and phlegm.  A miserly hypochondriac, swathed in dressing gown and nightcap, slumps in a bathchair-cum-commode over his candle-lit writing desk as he works out the bottom line of his rectal obsession.

The set, designed by Junis Olmscheid, is lavish, all resplendent rococo gold and duck egg blue, Corinthian columns, chandeliers, tassels and swags.  The costumes too are magnificently extravagant as befits the reign of the Sun King.  Olmscheid also designed the women’s costumes, Miriam King the men’s, with Irene Read as seamstress.

Beating heart of this blistering play is Argan (Daniel Wain), the pitiable hypochondriac who imagines he has every disease under the sun, spending a fortune on quacks, hocus pocus pills and dodgy doctors. He is so fixated with illness he is willing to force his daughter Angelique (Olivia Jackson) into marriage with a mediocre medic.

She is unwilling to be spliced to this dim young trainee doctor to ensure there’s a ready supply of cut price treatments for her father, preferring instead Argan’s sweet apprentice Cleante (Chris Cully).

Only the interventions of Argan’s suave brother Beralde (Michael Andrew) and wily servant Toinette (Loetitia Delais) can scupper the conniving stepmother Beline (Rebecca Fallon).

Beralde gets some of the loudest laughs as he berates the medical profession who have purged and leached Argan for everything from depression and insomnia to worms.  He ridicules those who seek a cure in dandelion sap, bug oil and ferret saliva.

‘You don’t have to be an expert to be a doctor.  Just a white coat.  And a beard,’ he says.  ‘Medicine is an exercise of hope and disappointment.’

The hope of voluptuous Beline is to make a fortune out of Argan.  She has a successful career in marrying aged rich husbands and inheriting their fortunes when they die.  But under French law it’s the children rather than the spouse that benefit so she schemes for Angelique to be banished to a nunnery.

Will she be disappointed?

The Hypochondriac was Molière’s last play, written in 1673.  It was performed at Le Palais Royal in Paris with the playwright as Argan.  During the fourth performance that year Molière, suffering from TB, was seized by a coughing fit and had a haemorrhage.  Famously he finished the performance but collapsed again and died a few hours later.

Molière’s maxim was: ‘It is important to teach but especially to please.’  The hugely talented cast of this energetic, exuberant production live up to his motto in style.

Gill Martin, October 2022

Photography courtesy of RSS

  1. Sanjeev Baskar permalink

    Beralde was superb

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