Other Media Review

The School for Wives: Bell Shakespeare Production, Sydney, Australia


Title: The School for Wives - Bell Shakespeare Production
Written By: Orig by Moliere, Translation by Justin Fleming
Publication Info: Bell Shakespeare 2012
Genre: Historical: Other

Arnold with his arm around Agnes, who looks somewhat ill.This was an English (rhyming!) translation of a Moliere play, performed by the Bell Shakespeare Company at the Sydney Opera House. I was feeling predisposed to like this play because I was in the Sydney Opera House (COOL) and it was a perfect night to go out near the harbor. By the end, and in the days after seeing the play, I recognized it's flaws, but was so pleased to have experienced it, because I'm still thinking about it.

In the opening scene, the lead, Arnold, announces he's getting married to Agnes, a girl he's had educated in a convent to be the perfect wife: completely innocent and naive, without any worldly knowledge of anything. He says in the opening he fell in love with her when she was 4 (EW DUDE) and bought her from the poor woman who was raising her (DOUBLE EW) and had her installed in a convent for her education, and has only recently brought her to his home (TRIPLE EW DUDE SERIOUSLY).

What's amazing is the level of empathy I had by the end for Arnold. He's truly despicable: he's selfish, arrogant, and utterly confident his way is right. (Sound familiar?) He has no thought of Agnes as a person with any autonomous thoughts or feelings, and thinks no further than the boundaries of his own expectations and desires. His motivations for raising Agnes to be ignorant and innocent are based mostly on his insecurity. He's afraid she'll cheat on him like so many other wives have done, and he wants marital bliss, even if the person he's married to is someone he has tried to program.

Arnold's plans go to crap when Horace, the son of a friend, confides that he's in love – with Agnes. Horace is outraged at the treatment Agnes has suffered, not knowing that Arnold is Agnes' guardian. Arnold plots to interfere in Horace's plans to help Agnes escape, and his efforts do not work as he planned.

The translation is by Justin Fleming, an Australian playwright who preserved the French rhyming structure of the play, but updated it with contemporary language-  language that is so very, very Australian. That part alone was a treat, especially the bawdy, vulgar parts.

The play was set in Jazz-age Paris on a set with many moving parts manipulated by an actor, and accompanied with sound and sound effects (HONK!) by actor Mark Jones, who was on stage seated at a piano the entire time.

The lead, John Adam, had a hell of a job in front off him. He had to make a man who was arguably an arrogant, insecure, predatory beast become sympathetic, even though the audience knows that he is not the right man for Agnes.

Agnes reading from maxims for the perfect wife, with Arnold behind her, looking haughty and approving.In one scene, he gives Agnes a guidebook to being a wife that is so offensive – and it would have been entirely hilarious if it wasn't so chilling a reminder to me of the Republican political platform, which I interpret as viewing women's rights as an entirely optional construct. While the exaggeration of the maxims are played for comedy, they sounded terribly familiar to me. The maxims in the book caution against thinking for oneself (as the husband will do all the thinking for her), and against seeking the counsel and company of other women. There was also one that directs Agnes to never leave the house without a veil and covering, as her beauty and her body belong to her husband and are reserved solely for him – someone seated behind me gasped at that one.

What was frustrating for me is the portrayal of Arnold compared to the portrayal of Horace. Horace, whether because of the limits of his character or the limits of the actor playing him, was very one-dimensional. He had one style of delivery he maintained through the entire play, and didn't develop or change or experience a character arc or growth. He was The Guy Who was Better for Agnes, even though he did little except show up, gesture a lot, and mug for the audience.

Arnold, by comparison, has an entire character arc. He's despicable, but he is undone and sees his arrogance destroyed by his own determination to be invulnerable. He holds women in contempt and maintains a cruel state of ignorance for Agnes because it's best for him and his needs, but his thoughts and dialogue dominate the play so that the audience knows him and is allowed to empathize with what he wants. I didn't want him to have control of Agnes, but I did want him to learn and be happy.

Even though the portrayal of Horace wasn't stellar, and the resolution of the end of the play was unsatisfying — and at the very end, utterly bizarre. There are bubbles. Why are there bubbles? I have no idea — I have a very positive impression of the play as a whole because of the idea of innocence, which is still bouncing around in my brain. The play and Arnold's actions in sheltering Agnes focus tightly on the question of what it means to be “innocent.” What is “innocence?”

For Arnold, it was the assurance that his wife wasn't smart or wise enough to deceive him, and was uninterested in anyone else – and in the final result of Agnes' sheltered upbringing, she was ignorant of largely everything. She knew that she shouldn't lie or be deceitful, but she also learns to identify what she wants and to go after it – in this case, Horace's company. 

Agnes on stage was fascinating. Harriet Dyer portrayed her with painful awkwardness and uncertainty, with a determination to hold onto the limited moral compass she knew. As a result she was truthful and honest, and unable to lie to someone to save their feelings. Her goal was to find her own happiness, and didn't understand why she or anyone else should be unhappy to satisfy someone else. But in attempts to restrict her ability to cheat, Arnold eliminates he sexual knowledge about herself, and her sexual autonomy to choose for herself. That aspect of her “innocence” explored in the play was powerful for me, and something I'm still thinking about. Innocence, in this example, is partly dangerous ignorance, and partly awkward truthfulness.

The Bell Shakespeare production will be at the Opera House until the end of November. Given how much we talk about heroes and antiheroes, alpha males and alpholes, this is a play that might entertain and interest romance novelists – at one point Arnold says a woman who is a novelist is the worst sort of person, which made Sarah Mayberry and I laugh considerably. Aside from the uneven portrayal of Horace, this is a play that left me admiring of the talent of the writers who produced it, both originally and in translation, and still thinking about it hours later. If you're in Australia and have the chance, see it.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Anony Miss says:

    great review! Where do I enter the contest for a flight to Australia + tickets? ;)

    Glad you’re home safely, Sarah.

  2. 2

    Great review! I’m with Anony Miss—where can I find a contest for a flight to Australia?

  3. 3

    Okay, now I’m blanking, did I see it on here or on Twitter about a recent book with a similar conceit? I was not aware of this play, so now that book makes *so* much more sense. However, what was that book?!?!

  4. 4
    Bronte says:

    You are making me homesick! I’m sitting in the middle of cold Wisconsin. What I wouldn’t give for a night back home with Bell Shakespeare and the opera house.

  5. 5
    SonomaLass50 says:

    I studied under a Moliere scholar during my Ph.D. years, and School for Wives is a favorite of mine. Agnes thinking that sex involves your husband inserting something in your ear is hilarious!

    It’s true that Horace is two-dimensional: he’s right for Agnes because he’s not old enough to be her father and because he isn’t the one who has tried to use tools of ignorance (a.k.a. Lack of sexual awareness) to control her.

  6. 6
    Lainedorb says:

    I saw this back in August at Penrith. I thought that Horace came over as being young and inexperienced in life, rather than lacking in character.
    I rather liked how he muddled through plotting, letting his rival know his every move, but still came out the winner. Whereas Arnold was a more sophisticated plotter but still lost out.
    I loved the shift in time. Enough to remove it from nowadays where it would be, if not sinister, laughable. But near enough to our time to make the language more accessible.
    Everyone in the audience seemed to enjoy it.

  7. 7
    JodiMcA says:

    I reviewed this one a couple of weeks ago! http://www.australianstage.com… (I have this whole other life as a theatre critic when I am not writing about virgin heroines in pursuit of academic glory.) It’s a really lovely production. Lee Lewis, the director, is an total theatrical badass – she’s directed some really outstanding things in the last few years, and she’s assuming the artistic directorship of one of Australia’s premier new writing theatres next year.

    So glad you got the chance to see some theatre when you were in Sydney! Our theatrical culture is rich and vibrant and very exciting.

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