David Lewis finds a healthy adaptation of Molière at The Lyric
If your seats are in the front few rows of the Lyric theatre for the The Hypochondriac-t a word of warning. A grape ejected from an on-stage Heimlich manoeuvre may be spat in your general direction or an enema preparation sprayed over your head.
It’s all in keeping with life in Molière's day when bodily functions were, er, rather more in your face. Argent, the hypochondriac of the play’s title, is obsessed by bodily functions, convinced the cure to his imaginary ills is a regime of purges, venting, enemas and blood-letting, all overseen by the local sawbones. Never has the patient been such a willing victim.
Director Dan Gordon brings an imaginative approach to proceedings, breaching the line between actors and audience from the off. A tall man, incongruously dressed in an overcoat (roll on the new Lyric with air con), sits in the wrong seat in front of me, offering round Opal Fruits. When the lights dim and a masque begins on stage, he interjects – ‘young people make me boke’ – and, well, let’s just say that he’s not your average punter.
David Johnston’s version of Molière’s final play The Hypochondriac is a bizarre mix of satire, slapstick, toilet humour, NI in-jokes, witticisms and bon mots. Some of the jokes are panto-bad: ‘With friends like those who needs enemas?’ Some are sharply satirical. A gag around a Scotsman not understanding a word of Ulster Scots is priceless.
Johnston’s intention in giving Molière’s play a Belfast slant is ‘because its obsessions, its assumptions, and its deceptions are still uncomfortably alive for us today’, a statement which stands up to scrutiny. The moral of the play - ‘cynicism is the surest path to the truth’ - seems particularly apposite for present times.
Diana Ennis’ costumes are wonderful, including Brian May wigs, long coats, lace shirts and shiny boots. Tara Lynne O’Neill as Bella, the hypochondriac’s wife and wicked step-mother, is a busty tangerine dream, a sort of 17th century Sue Ellen.
Sick note himself, played by Andy Gray, wears a hideous brown dressing gown and scuzzy nightcap. Gray, a well-known face from the small screen, gleefully romps his way through the evening, like a character from Rab C Nesbitt on speed, which is saying something. Molière died a few hours after collapsing on stage while appearing in The Hypochondriac, and by the end one is genuinely concerned for Gray's health.
Gray is ably supported by an excellent cast, notably an authoritative Miche Doherty as Dr Macrobius and Sheelagh O’Kane as brook-no-nonsense maid Tanny. She is able to make an audience laugh simply by laughing, no mean feat.
But Patrick J O’Reilly can go one better. He can make an audience laugh just by twitching an eyebrow. Anyone who has seen O’Reilly in Red Lemon productions over recent years won’t be surprised by the hilarious physicality of his debut at the Lyric. His turn as Dr Macrobius junior, in flaming red curly wig, nearly steals the show.
At the end of the first act O’Reilly is left stranded on stage, surrounded by cardboard cutouts of the other characters, who have long escaped Dr Macrobius senior's boring rant. He stays there for the interval, poor boy, extemporising, scrounging sweets from the returning audience and miraculously making us giggle.
These blurrings of boundaries between acting and real life are the most original and satisfying moments of the production. We are drawn into the madness of the hypochondriac’s obsessive world without even realising.
The action does go on a little too long and the climax/Hippocratic coronation is one of the strangest scenes I’ve ever seen in theatre, yet, somehow, it works. The Hypochondriac-t may be the first play of the Lyric’s last season before the builders move in, but it proves that the ole lady hasn’t sung her last just yet.