Robert Tanitch reviews The Hypochondriac at Richmond Theatre, Surrey
Moliere loathed the medical profession all his life and he wrote seven farces at their expense. The Hypochondriac is the best known.
During the fourth performance in 1673, Moliere suffered a severe haemorrhage on stage whilst playing the leading role. The armchair in which he sat and made his last stage appearance can still be seen in a glass case in the foyer of the Comedie Francaise in Paris.
The famous playwright had been ridiculed all his life for being a self-indulgent hypochondriac. The irony of his actually dying whilst playing a hypochondriac, escaped nobody. Moliere was only 51.
Richard Bean’s very free translation adds an epilogue in which Moliere collapses on stage and the curtain comes down on a member of the cast asking the audience if there is a doctor in the house?
The play opens with Argan sitting on his commode, preoccupied with his bowel movements. Enemas are his best friends. His library shelves are not filled with books but with jars containing urine and stools. Argan wants his daughter to marry a doctor so that he can have a medic permanently in the house without having to pay him any fees.
In the end he is persuaded to become a doctor himself. Anybody can be a doctor. All you need is a white coat and a lot of Latin mumbo-jumbo. Patients in the 17th century in France were far more likely to die of the doctors’ remedies than the actual illness.
The farce, which is not one of Moliere’s best plays, owes much to the commedia dell’arte; and Lindsay Posner’s touring production will appeal to all those who think an actor having an enormous colonic irrigation pump repeatedly rammed up his backside is funny. Well, yes, of course, it’s funny, if it’s not happening to you.
Richard Thomas also provides a couple of dirty songs of the sort you would expect to hear in an undergraduate revue.
Interestingly, the actors, who do not overdo it, and I am thinking of Tony Robinson as Argan, Imogen Stubbs as his wife and Jordan Metcalf as the decent suitor in particular, they are far funnier than those who mug terribly.
Photo credits Simon Annand