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David Furlong: The Doctor In Spite Of Himself

By | Published on Tuesday 21 June 2016

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There’s a festival of French theatricals taking place over at the Drayton Arms Theatre over the next few weeks, which is good news for anyone who is French, interested in France, or, frankly, interested in good plays and quality theatre.
The flagship event of Bastille 2016 comes courtesy of festival founders Exchange Theatre, who will be performing their latest show, a new adaptation of Moliere’s ‘The Doctor In Spite Of Himself’, in both French and English. To find out more about the play, Exchange Theatre, and how the festival came about, I spoke to creative director David Furlong.

CM: What happens in ‘The Doctor In Spite Of Himself’ – what’s the story?
DF: It’s about Sganarelle, a merry but drunken woodcutter, who beats his wife one day, and in return she spreads the word that he is actually a brilliant doctor who can only work when he is beaten. After a stream of beatings, he’s taken by force to tend to a dysfunctional family where silence rules over emotions. His arrival leads to a farcical roller-coaster of adultery and comedy.

This play is the mother of French farces, and I think it’s also the story of Moliere writing a comedy ‘in spite of himself’. He wrote the play after his much deeper works for the King’s court, such as ‘Dom Juan’ or ‘Le Misanthrope’ – for which he got trashed by false critics – and returned to the farcical genre he employed when he first began, when he was touring France for ten years, from village to village, performing on trestles.

But he does it in a very clever way, breaking the fourth wall and speaking about his own creation with a very critical view on the ‘upstarts’ from his time. So our production also explores this sub-story within the story. It’s quite amazing, it’s almost like a Spike Jonze movie!

CM: It’s a new adaptation of the play, of course – how close is the adaptation to the original piece in its events and themes?
DF: The vocation of the company is to translate the language of the play, of course, but also its spirit. So even if our production is very modern, and uses a contemporary imagery more suited to a 2016 audience, it’s mostly true to Moliere’s ideas: we did explore more deeply some themes that are already in the play, and could not be ignored in 2016, like the violence or the forced marriage.

It’s generally very true to the original in terms of the script itself, though we devised some scenes in order to tell some of the untold sub-plots, by doing a lot of development work on the characters with the cast (which made the process fantastic). And as we’re producing the original play in French, alternating with the English run, the two productions are exact mirror images.

CM: Who has translated the piece? Is it a one-person job?
Over the ten years we’ve been translating French plays to English, we’ve experimented with several different approaches: we worked with a university professor on our Claudel piece, I updated an old translation for Sartre’s ‘The Flies’, we’ve workshopped the play with actors for a more contemporary writer, and we also sometimes found an original translation that worked perfectly.

For this project, as it was our first great classic, I didn’t plan to come up with my own translation, as I was sure that the work had been done brilliantly in the past. But as I was looking into previous ones, there was always something slightly wrong for our version: one would be too outdated for a modern audience, the other too literal, with French turn of phrases which don’t work in English; another one would be too much of a departure from the original, and one last one was too American for London.

As I have an important body of translations behind me now, I decided I would be able to come up with a version that combines the best ideas of previous translators with the elements of my own contemporary vision for the play. Having done this, I then re-worked it with the actors in rehearsal. Our company is comprised entirely of fully-bilingual people, some of them Franco-British, so when we had doubts about a line, we always looked back to Moliere’s original words. Any language has echoes and nuances, so it’s important to have a team that really understands both cultures intimately.

CM: It’s not one of the French playwright’s most performed plays, is it? Why do you think that is?
DF: ‘Le Medecin Malgre Lui’ was one of Moliere’s greatest success, and is still studied by all thirteen year olds in French classrooms. But for obvious educative reasons, all the triviality is avoided and the sexual innuendos – the trashy bits – are not talked about, so in the national collective consciousness it occupies a bit of a boring place. Even I had my doubts when the play was first commissioned for the French Lycee… But then I discovered Molière wrote it with a very modern insolence.

I think that in all cultures, there is a misconception about classics being dusty and simply too old. And it’s already so much work keeping up people’s interest in the likes of Shakespeare, though The RSC, the NT, the Globe, and many touring companies are doing an amazing job at this. This means there’s little room for foreign writers, even the greatest ones. So we end up having only a handful of Moliere plays put on because they got a bit famous (just like we only get two Calderon plays and two Goldoni plays).

Even in France, people can be put off by Moliere’s so-called classicism. But it’s worth noting that French theatre makes more room for foreign authors than British Theatre does. Whilst in training at the French National Theatre, I got to work on Shakespeare as a natural part of the curriculum, I got to see Cheek by Jowl reinvigorating these classics internationally, even the least performed plays from the Bard. No one does this for Moliere. A play dies when it’s not performed, so as long as we’re doing it, we’re keeping it alive.

CM: Can you tell us about Exchange Theatre? How did the company come into being, and what are its aims?
DF: Remember what I was saying earlier about the lack of translations? The company originated from this idea that there was a gap to fill in the UK scene.  As aforementioned, the work of Moliere and many other major French writers are rarely produced in Britain, whereas in France, we get a lot of plays from across the channel. We felt we could make this work this the other way too.

It began as a ‘side’ to our personal acting careers but it now represents most of it. We’ve translated Claudel, Sartre, and Durringer (the ‘French Ravenhill’ – whose play we even took off-broadway in 2011). Along the way, we also found our own theatrical languages, we explored non western approaches to performing, site-specific works, multilingualism, and I also wrote twelve bilingual shows for a Young Audience season at the Institut Francais.

We settled in London Bridge five years ago, also building a local network within our council, and we are pleased to have a rehearsal space just off Bermondsey Street at the foot of Tower Bridge. Not bad for aliens! We’re very much an international company based in London now, in the footsteps of the artists you’ll see at the Barbican.

CM: This show is part of the Bastille Festival 2016, isn’t it? Can you tell us a bit about the festival?
DF: I started Exchange Theatre along with actress and producer Fanny Dulin back in 2006, and we soon decided, after our first show, that we wanted to stop having day-jobs and to be able to dedicate ourselves to just this. I then started teaching drama classes in French. Then in July, we first booked a theatre for two days to showcase our first French drama class at the time. I remember thinking, “But hang on… if we hire a venue for our students, shouldn’t we also present a professional show?!”

So that led to the British premiere of unknown Feydeau one-act farces! We had no idea that just a few years later, we’d have four amdram groups showcasing alongside our ‘flagship’ show. The artists are the heart of the company, but the classes are definitely our lungs, so the Festival is the moment of the year when the whole body works together.

And we also had no idea that we’d even be doing that show in two languages, and run for four weeks; this is something that only began in 2013 after we were a resident company at the French Institute and started to reach not only our first target, the British audience, but also the huge French community of London.

These weeks have now become a traditional rendez-vous, a hub of invention and a true annual cultural bridge: through the years we’ve presented forty showcases in French, and ten professional productions (among others, ‘A family Affair’ translated by Andy De La Tour). We’ve also always had invited artists featured at the festival, and this year Cyphers, a young bold and dynamic UK company, is presenting ‘The Three Musketeers’ in their incredibly pacy, story-telling style; Herve Goffings is presenting his one-man show ‘Herve’, the amazing tale of a busker of African descent adopted by a couple of Belgian globe-trotters, and finally, Doubtful Sound is presenting ‘Yama – Tales Of Shonai’, offering a rare opportunity to see a show of traditional Japanese funny stories.

CM: What’s next for you?
DF: We have an important body of work in London and now, after ten years, it’s time for us to take it outside of the capital. We are working hard at touring our current production and we’ve actually had a set-frame built especially for this (constructed in the Young Vic’s workshop) that we can take around. It was built for ‘The Doctor In Spite of Himself’ in the spirit of the trestles that Moliere toured with for years.

In the same vein, the company we’re building is also very much a collective ensemble of people who carry on working together. And artistically there is still so much to do. Major foreign language plays are still not seen enough in the UK so we’re also joining forces with other partners to continue producing real discoveries from other cultures. This autumn, we’ll be part of the fourth Voila festival held at the Cockpit theatre in November. As in previous years, we will present the work of a living playwright, this year Laurent Gaude, who is one of the most gifted writers alive in France at the moment.

‘The Doctor In Spite Of Himself’ is on at the Drayton Arms Theatre from 21 Jun – 13 Jul. See this page here for info, and make sure you establish which language the show is being performed in on the night you want to go! Check this link here for the other events that are on as part of Bastille 2016.

LINKS: www.thedraytonarmstheatre.co.uk | www.exchangetheatre.com | twitter.com/exchangetheatre



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