The Literati – Molière brought to new life by Justin Fleming. (Theatre review)


The Literati

Griffin Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare

The stables theatre from 27 May to 16 July. You can grab your tickets here.

In the film Mistress America, a young man named Tony studying literature at Columbia follows his friends into a home that is occupied by a group of pregnant women holding a book club. As he passes by in the background, he overhears them discussing Faulkner as if he were a painter with words attempting to capture reality as they recognize the differences in his artistic approach. Tony responds with “Holy shit, these pregnant women are super smart,” which is the great joke – that he is impressed by a discussion of the Real that imposes jargon separating the subject from the Real. The women are pregnant, privileged and kept by husbands and they imagine their reading group gives them an intellectual grasp on an elusive proposition; engagement with the Real. All the while, despite being pregnant, their environment is as fallacious as their bombastic engagement with each other.

It can be argued, through Molière, that reason can be a useful capacity only if its status as a bodily function in a concrete physical and social context is recognized. Molière’s view of modernity as interpreted and translated by Justin Fleming in The Literati, becomes a utopia made of a clear space housing a perfect text. It’s not so much what you say, but how you say it that constructs the Babel like towers of knowledge in our world; this cognitive utopia is a social, corporeal and ecological dystopia. In The Literati, many of the characters like books and explicitly associate authority with text. Their distance from the body as exemplified in an inability to experience love as physical passion separates them from true wisdom. One of the hallmarks of modernity is the segregation of mind and body. Reality is defined as a projection of what is required to authenticate a system or code; it is reduced to a debilitated two-dimensional consignment. Molière argues that the mind and therefore reason, is inherently embodied. Justin Fleming contemporizes this with the prancing display by Amanda (Kate Mulvany) of pseudo scientific texts; books are flattery and flattery is best embodied in a book. When Molière places emphasis on the body, he eliminates the belief in abstract thought as all thought is dependent on sensory perception, bodily movement and physical situation. Justin Fleming would include the political, as his version of The Literati might attest, although he suggests political opinion is more akin to status than to sensory perception. In this way democracy becomes a slave to unexamined feelings shrouded in the authority of reality or text. We speak what we think we feel while our words are tombs for emotions.

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For Molière and Justin Fleming, the one who listens too well to his own reason is precisely one who doesn’t learn from experience. This implies the world one learns about through experience is an evolving structure; it is no longer a set of ready-made ideas we dig our way close to or discover ourselves into. Molière pushed the boundaries of French taste by launching satires on almost every subject; marriage, infidelity, religion, the government. A fixed observation of the world was the order of the day at the birth of modernity. Perspective had become the means for organizing visual information. As The Literati reveals, in this age of video and internet documentation of everything we do, another form of surveillance forces faux intellectual perspective into our lives today. There is a natural hostility between the long unobstructed views that are virtually synonymous with perspective and the obstructions, agitation and ambiguities which characterize the Real. Perspective, in other words is invisible in the represented world that is actually structured by perspective. Molière seems to offer us the suggestions that the book or the play, or the representation is the object. What may be taken for a transparent disclosure is really an opaque object that blocks perception of the Real. Visual representations organized by perspective seem to render accessible uninvolved, clear knowledge in relation to a geometrically organized and therefore knowable world. However the organizational system is part of the representational artifact that is mistaken for a transparently disclosed world. This idea becomes doubly apparent when seen through the modern realization of intellectual organization via the internet. Much has been made of the diffuse and diluted relationship with knowing (as in knowing the Real) on the internet, but The Literati reveals this problem has been with us for centuries – as has the faux intellectual book club.

This very modern translation of Molière’s Les Femme Savantes by Justin Fleming captures much of Molière’s critique of the appropriation of knowledge for ego gratification while including a witty commentary on modern life. The Literati is a light and playful text that incorporates Molière’s use of rhyming couplets while translating the French into an Australian English take on the fashionable intellectual. This emerges as more natural than one would expect. It’s mischievous and funny, frolics along and plays unselfconsciously to the intellectual and non-intellectual alike. Lee Lewis’ direction plonks the action atop a revolving stage that embodies the circular discourse so often employed by those seeking to impress with words even as it embodies the sensory interaction with the Real that Molière hopes we will favour. Sophie Fletchers set transforms the small Griffin stage into a larger room that becomes an entire world. The excellent cast uses the stage movement to hop in and out of character in almost imperceptible ways, again placing emphasis upon the physical. The cast is all in fine form giving great performances, particularly Kate Mulvany as Amanda and Jamie Oxenbould as Christopher and Clinton. In one clever scene, Christopher and Clinton make great use of the revolving stage to have a conversation making Oxenbould’s transitions the focal point of running gag that works to perfection. Much is made of the casts taking on of duel roles, and often one cast member can be seen to be searching for their missing other role. This beautiful combination of character and performance exemplifies the point of a movable universe made small by the stultifying observation of perspective.

The Literati is a wonderfully engaging night at the theatre in Sydney, filled with wit and warmth, enormous characters and beautiful performances. It’s long running time flies by as it takes the audiences into a world of words that have the capacity to enliven and even shock. It’s a fun, joyful commentary on modern life and an experience you will be talking about for a long time.

Highly recommended.