Roger McGough thought twice before deciding to adapt his third Molière play, he tells Laura Davis
STAGE history has seen Molière’s misanthrope time-travelling to De Gaulle’s 1970s France, to iPhone-populated 21st century Washington DC, to the early days of the Scottish Parliament and to contemporary London (with Keira Knightley as the love interest).
No matter what the era, it seems there has been call for Alceste’s revulsion at the fakery and frivolity of society.
But finding comparison between the fripperies of the 17th century French aristocracy and our own culture of fast fame, Roger McGough is sticking with the play’s original period.
“There was the Liz Lochhead version which I always loved – contemporary, set in the world of television – but I quite like staying where we are rather than trying to update it, and I think audiences like that,” he says.
“And it’s still aposite for today. So much of it is about the role of theatre, the world of celebrity and how everyone says nice things all the time and are two-faced.
“With celebrity and X Factor these days there are always people thinking if you give it 100% that’ll be enough, or if you want it enough you’ll be rewarded for wanting it. Of course life isn’t like that and nor is it in this play.”
Colin Tierney, who played the imposter Tarfuffe with skin-crawling lechery in the second run of McGough’s first stab at Molière, is returning to the Liverpool Playhouse as Alceste, the misanthropist.
He will be joined by other McGoughière old timers Simon Coates (Philante) and Liverpool actor Neil Caple (Dubois) as well as some new faces.
Refusing to adhere to aristocratic social conventions, which he views as base, Alceste nevertheless finds himself falling in love with a flighty and vivacious flirt, Célimène (Zara Tempest-Walters), who embodies all that he despises.
Meanwhile, he manages to insult the powerful nobleman Oronte (Daniel Goode) by failing to praise his poetry.
McGough’s remark that “love either conquers or destroys all” suggests, while The Misanthrope may be a comedy it’s a very different beast to Tartuffe or The Hypochondriac, which the poet tackled in 2009.
“It’s subtler certainly compared to the others,” he says.
“There are certainly laughs in it but there’s not the knock about stuff, the pantomime. There isn’t the farce element. There’s no big sing song at the end as it were.”
In contrast, (300-year-old spoiler alert!) the final scene of The Misanthrope sees Alceste trogging off in self-imposed exile. It’s hardly the sort of grande finale to have you skipping out of the auditorium.
“He’s like ‘off I go. . .’,” laughs McGough.
“Gemma (Bodinetz – the director) and I have discussed it and we have ideas but in a sense you’ve got to respect Molière and the fact that his way worked.
“It’s interesting though, I remember with The Hypochondriac we did have an ending which was very dark, which we tried out in rehearsals and ditched for another format.”
The difference in tone made McGough question whether it was the right play for him to adapt.
“I was put off doing it because it’s been done so often and sort of recently. Will it be compared? Am I taking on too much?” he says.
“But once it develops it takes on voices and they talk and I make it my own and I make some changes and it works.
“I can’t wait to see what Gemma does with it. She’ll pull her hair in ringlets and she’ll dance round in her high heels and I can’t wait to see what comes of it.
“And I’m still there with a pen and paper so if things don’t quite work. . . You can tinker with things for so long that you somehow make it worse – I don’t think I’ve got to that stage yet!”
Before The Misanthrope arrives on the Playhouse stage next month, McGough will be appearing there himself with a one-man poetry reading named for his new book As Far As I Know.
“There’ll be some stuff that I did there last time and maybe some new things,” he says.
“It’s what to wear really – that’s the problem. The red shoes? The blue trousers?”
McGough fans will recognise the poem Another Time Another Place, in which he recalls running after a red ball across the sand at Crosby Beach. Later, his aunt told him his memory was playing tricks. It was the family dog he had been chasing – into a minefield where the poor animal was blown up.
“Very weird,” he says. “When I did my autobiography, Said and Done, I was talking with The Scaffold and Brian (fellow Liverpool poet Patten) and things were remembered very differently.
“It doesn’t matter in a way. You’re not saying it’s truth. As long as it’s honest, getting the date right and exactly what was said is not important. What’s more important is the people and the feel of it.”
McGough turned 75 this year but feels no wiser, he reveals.
“I wish I did. I’m Still puzzled really,” he says.
“You always think you might get some sort of balance on things but as a poet you always say things as you see them, you’re not writing to please anybody.”
ROGER MCGOUGH: As Far as I know is at the Liverpool Playhouse tomorrow; The Misanthrope is at the same venue from February 15 to March 9.