Directed by Lee Lewis, and in a new translation by Justin Fleming, Bell Shakespeare's The School for Wives is a comedy as broad as the broad, brown country they've been criss-crossing these past three months. Having opened in Warrnambool way back in June, they've since toured through a remarkably various itinerary of regional centres, from Geraldton to Orange, Caloundra to Launceston, with many a "civic theatre" and "entertainment centre" between. Perhaps because they've had to front such diversity, this production, though indeed a high-spirited lark, does seem a little too eager to amuse, and perhaps some of the ham needs to be dialled back for their stint in Melbourne.
Fleming's translation keeps the rhyme and meter the seventeenth-century original, but gives Moliere's comedy of marriage and manners plenty of contemporary colour. By emphasising the slowness of the alexandrine verse and liberally sprinkling it with the colloquial, he also manages to suggest something of the bush balladeers, an unexpected but fruitful meeting of Australian and Continental comic traditions.
Lewis shifts the story to an anachronistic playground-world, roughly jazz age in its themes. It's good fun, but doesn't do much to focus the performers, which are wildly overplayed. As the irrepressible and fortune-favoured Horace, Meyene Wyatt hums and dazzles like a new set of chrome rims, while Harriet Dyer, as his love interest, Agnes the ingénue, is pure butterscotch. Andrew Johnston and Alexandra Aldrich, as a pair of bumbling servants, make Nino Culotta look like subdued naturalism. And Damien Richardson is strangely volatile as the resigned cuckold, Chris.
At the centre, however, and resisting the pantomime antics of the rest, John Adams as Arnolde, the lovelorn bachelor with a nefarious scheme to marry his ward, Agnes, is very slick. Without resorting to excessive helplessness, he manages to inspire a fragment of sympathy in what is a thoroughly unlikeable character, and his handling of the verse is impressively consistent throughout.
This is a production that, for all its period eccentricities and over-reliance on the familiar tricks of farce, seems quite original. There's a curious rightness about many of the associations it secretly makes behind all the mugging. There are, of course, elements which don't seem so right – references to silent film, some comic business with tennis balls – but the combination of Australian vaudeville and French farce intriguing. Though the interactions with Mark Jones, accompanying on piano are a little forced, too closely rehearsed, they're in the right spirit. And that sums up the evening: too forced to really relax into, but at least in the right spirit.
Lee Lewis on The School for Wives