Theatre review: Molière's comic masterpiece The Bourgeois Gentleman still resonates
The Bourgeois Gentleman
Theatre des Bouffes du Nord
HK Cultural Centre Grand Theatre
Reviewed: June 5
Last seen here in the 2012 Hong Kong Arts Festival, France's celebrated theatre company the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord returned as part of Le French May with Molière's 1670 comic masterpiece The Bourgeois Gentleman ( Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme).
The title itself is the first joke - in Molière's day it was an obvious oxymoron: if you were bourgeois, by definition you weren't a gentleman. The play revolves around the ambitions of Monsieur Jourdain, a wealthy merchant who longs to shake off his middle-class status and become "a person of quality".
To the despair of his sensible wife he spends a fortune on fancy clothes, lessons in music, dance, fencing and philosophy, loans to unscrupulous aristocrat Dorante and gifts for the beautiful Marquise Dorimene after whom he lusts.
Everyone takes Jourdain's money while laughing at him behind his back as he covers himself in ridicule.
The play is still funny today thanks to Molière's witty dialogue and sharp observation of human nature. It's still pertinent, too - the pretensions of the nouveau riche are alive and kicking with plenty of Jourdains to be found in China and Hong Kong.
Rather than updating the story, however, the production by Denis Podalydes sets out to reproduce what the audience saw when the play was first performed, including the original music by Lully along with sequences of dance.
This doesn't quite come off - on the one hand the concept isn't fully followed (the choreography bears no resemblance to 17th century dance), on the other the musical interludes, although well performed, slow down the action and make the evening overlong.
Classic French comic acting is a genre of its own - the robust physical slapstick and incessant shouting are a taste non-Gallic audiences may not share - but the cast gave a great example of the style, led by Pascal Reneric's exuberant Jourdain.