El Misàntropo is a contemporary Spanish version of the classic play Le Misanthrope by 17th century French playwright Molière. A social satire with political implications, it deals with issues such as hypocrisy and love, sycophancy and plain speaking, and how far one should go to defend the truth. As Spanish theatre director Miguel del Arco has recognised, this makes the play very relevant for our era of spin. Yet it is also a very difficult play to successfully update. As Michael Billington pointed out of Martin Crimp’s 2009 version, the stakes have to be high enough in modern terms to convince us of the risk the protagonist is taking in his refusal to play the flattery game. O sea, Alceste has to appear more dangerous than the archetypal party pooper, and significantly less impotent than your average troll.
The Spanish context of this production arguably lowers that limbo pole: this is, after all, a country in permanent economic crisis where politics is so dirty that they don’t bother to hide it. And while del Arco emphasises that El Misàntropo is a free adaptation of the original play, he has certainly been inspired by Molière’s pot shots at members of the French court, to pop a few of his own at contemporary Spanish politicians. His aim, said the director, was to create a play that not only reflected the contemporary crisis but actually explored paths out of it suggested by the “radically pure” approach of Alceste.
Israel Elejalde, who plays Alceste, described a complex character… “Alceste represents the human being in his most extreme state of purity, in his dedication to the truth he’s a mirror in which the public looks and asks themselves ‘how far should you go to defend truth?’ But by living at such extremes, he’s someone that suffers immensely. He’s radically contradictory too, as he’s completely in love with (the radically different), Celimene…”
But given that ‘truth’ is famously relative, doesn’t Alceste seem a bit of a fanatic?
“Some truths aren’t relative,” says del Arco, “If someone steals your money they’re a thief, whatever position of power they hold. There’s a tendency to call people fanatical when sometimes they’re simply calling a spade a spade.”
Rather than set the play in the house of Celimene, as did Molière, El Misantropo is set in a pestilent back alley outside a nightclub, where a company with apparent political connections are celebrating a work do. Here party people (of both types) pop out to smoke, do coke or have a pee, and here ‘the misanthrope’ lurks in fist clenching frustration with the corruption and sycophancy that go on within.
One of the key questions raised in the play is how Alceste could possible be in love with the false and flirty Celimene, and why she should have a thing for him. The director explained: “Alceste doesn’t start out as a misanthropist, he trusts that he can make other people change. It’s only at the end when he rejects the possibility of compromise, that he rejects society completely.”
Elejalde: “What’s interesting, though, is that the others, including Celimene, seek out this outsider because he’s honest.”
The action takes place in real time, the tension mounting with the continual throb of the club music, suddenly loud as characters enter and leave the club through the back door, marking a sharp divide between inside and outside. With the dialogue, fast paced and challenging (for me) to follow, del Arco plays with language the way Molière did, using literary prose cut through by Alceste’s blunt street speech. At key moments, too, the action freezes and strange slow motion scenes commence in which shadows loom on a flame drenched wall, evoking the increasing persecution, isolation and general mental despair of Alceste.
In losing all hope of love, Alceste understandably decides to abandon society altogether, a decision that could be courageous but could equally be cowardly. As Elejalde explains, “At the end, it’s the only way Alceste believes he can maintain his purity”.
This sounds like a rather pessimistic play, but as Elejalde explains, the misanthrope himself is a real optimist: “Alceste is the one who believes that things can change, that a new world is possible. I think his friend Philante (Raúl Prieto) is the real pessimist in that he believes we have to accept what he calls ‘human nature’; that the best we can do is to work with corruption and lies. Alceste has the capacity to provoke, to confront society in order to improve it. We too have this capacity, so it’s a positive message.”
Del Arco: “Our whole production is an attempt to reveal these issues, to use truth as a starting point to seek another way, another order. The play asks, what is the best way forward, to flee or to fight? It comes down to whether we think we can really change things. And if we believe that we can, then we start with that truth.”
El Misàntropo dir. Miguel del Arco / Kamikaze Producciones
until December 7th
The play is in Spanish
THANK YOU Eduardo Moreno for the photos.