Hamish Glen on Molière, Marriage and The Sisterhood

Posted on 22 January 2016

Relocated in time from the 17th century to Paris, France during the late 1980s, The Sisterhood tells the hilarious story of Henriette who is desperate to marry the man she loves, much to the disapproval of her intellectual mother, aunt and sister, who have a very different choice in mind. Adapted into English by Ranjit Bolt and performed by a company of ten actors, this astutely observed and wonderfully witty take on marriage, manners and female education marries Parisian high-glamour with retro eighties flare and comes complete with hilarious routines, punchy put-downs and Molière’s own unique brand of wicked wit!

Ahead of the show’s premiere, we caught up with Director Hamish Glen to find out more about bringing this fun and fast-paced comedy of warring families, meddling servants, hen-pecked husbands and simpering suitors to the Belgrade stage this Spring…

What is the play about?

The play tells the story of Henriette who’s intellectual mother, aunt and sister – the ‘learned ladies’ cannot bear to see throw her life away on the wrong man. Henriette’s mother, Philaminte heads up ‘The Sisterhood’, a circle of women completely obsessed with the intellectual, salon culture of the time. This obsession leads Philaminte to become convinced that she should marry her youngest daughter to an entirely inappropriate pseudo-intellectual poet – a self-professed genius who turns out to be little more than a posturing fool.

But, as with most Molière comedies – there’s a problem. Henriette is in love with someone completely different and has absolutely no intention of marrying the suitor her mum has chosen for her. Enlisting support from her put-upon father and uncles, Henriette sets about trying to persuade her mum to let her marry where her heart truly lies…

The Sisterhood is based on Molière’s Les Femmes Savantes or ‘The Learned Ladies’. Can you tell us a little more about this particular adaptation and what inspired you to bring The Sisterhood to the Belgrade stage?

When it first premiered in Paris in 1672, Les Femmes Savantes was considered one of Molière’s most popular comedies of the era. It was also the last of his so-called ‘high comedies’, which tended to be characterized by witty and satirical attacks on the society of the age.

This particular version by Ranjit Bolt has been adapted into English from the original French and was first performed at the New End Theatre, Hampstead in 1987 starring Lesley Joseph and Clive Swift.

What’s interesting about Bolt’s version of the play for me is the fact that it has been relocated in time from 17th Century Paris to the late 1980s. Obviously, this gives me a great deal of comic potential to play with as a Director, both in terms of the historical parallels in attitudes to women during the two eras and the music and style of the 1980s as a decade, from shoulder-padded power dressers to punk rockers and new romantics!

I think all of us that are of an age to have lived through that era, will bring their specific memories of the decade to the rehearsal room. A lot of our collective discussion of the 80s as a company has been triggered by the music. We’ve decided to set this production to a soundtrack of some of the biggest hits of 1987 – the year in which the play originally premiered – which will hopefully help set the tone for audiences!

This is the third Molière play you have directed at the Belgrade Theatre. What continues to bring you back to Molière and how would you describe his comic style?

Molière helped create the style of comedy which is built on one-liners, stand-up, slapstick and set pieces and which has become the foundations for almost all modern day comic routines. My productions of Molière’s The Hypochondriac and The Miser hopefully gave audiences a glimpse of how accessible and relevant these 17th Century comedies can still be today.

As a writer, Molière was heavily influenced by the Italian tradition known as Commedia dell’arte which came out of Venice in the 1600s. As such, the characters in his comedies tend to be based on universal ‘types’ such as warring masters, clever servants, beleaguered husbands and determined lovers. Molière’s comedies are often quite satirical in nature and delight in poking fun at human foibles, whether that be corruption, pretence, intellectual posturing or religious hypocrisy. Much of the behaviour we see exhibited in Molière’s comedies is behaviour we can recognize elements of in ourselves and in our own friends and neighbours. It’s for this reason, I think, that his plays still resonate with audiences today.

The 1670s and 1980s were both times of great change for women in particular. Is this something that interested you when choosing this adaptation?
I think the parallels between the world of Molière and 1980s Paris are startlingly clear. Much of the comedy of Ranjit Bolt’s adaptation deals with the fall-out from the sexual revolution of the late 60s and early 70s. This was the era of second-wave feminism, of Erica Yong’s ‘Fear of Flying’, of power-dressing, Thatcherism and the rise of the financially independent female earner.

What sets The Sisterhood apart from other Molière comedies of the age in particular, is that it is the matriarch rather than the patriarch who is the object of derision. Despite writing at a time of great social and economic change, it was still considered unnatural for a wife to usurp or take on the role of her husband in Molière’s age. Interestingly in The Sisterhood, it is the wife who holds financial sway over the household, not the husband – who is instead portrayed very much as a man out of his time and out of his depth for that matter.

Clearly then, this is a piece that plays around with the idea of emasculated men rendered feckless by their wives!

Having said all that, the play is as much a satire on what Molière saw as the intellectual posturing and affectation of his age. A particular target of the play was a group known as the ‘blue stockings’ or ‘bah bleu’ as they were called in France. The ‘bah blue’ were roughly categorized as intellectual men and women of ‘the literary salons’ grouped together by their refinements in manner and exultation of the mind over material matters. So whilst the play has a lot to say about gender and female education specifically, it’s as much a satire on the human condition as anything else.

Can you tell us a little about the set design for this production?

The action of the play takes place in Philaminte’s stylish ‘salon’ in downtown Paris. My Designer Libby Watson has developed a set model that’s based on Karl Lagerfeld’s Paris flat which is filled from floor to ceiling with books laid horizontally from side to side. The set acts as a really interesting visual metaphor for the household in the sense that the traditional domestic order has been skewed by Philaminte’s obsession with the intellectual pastimes of the age.
The set also has to work on a practical level too. Much of the comedy of Molière’s writing comes from comic misunderstandings, double-takes and who-hears-who sequences. In the absence of scene changes, many of the comic set pieces that feature in the piece therefore require very quick exits and entrances. For this reason, we need at least two doors on the stage on the ground level. For scenes in which characters are being overheard or spied upon – whether by a lover, servant or their own mother, we also have ourselves a beautiful gallery level above. All of the sets and costumes featured in the show are produced by Belgrade Production Services, our commercial set-building company who, as well as producing sets for the Belgrade Theatre, also take commissions from theatre companies across the UK.

And how about the costumes? Should we have our legwarmers and head bands on standby?

Heavily lacquered, high-impact hair, sharp-suits, angular lines and over-the-top accessories are very much the staples of the 1980s wardrobe which marries very well with how over-the-top the fashions of Molière’s own era could be.

We all have an idea of what the 80s is when it comes to fashion. In many cases, people think of Dallas and Dynasty as the big style gurus of the time and we’ll certainly be channelling these. For this particular production however, we’ve been looking at the more European fashion culture of the 1980s. In particular, we’ve focused on the couture houses of 1980s France such as Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent.

Although the shoulders are still big and wide and the waists are still narrow, there’s a real elegance to these particular brands and because the women in this play are all powerful in their own right, this styling works wonderfully for them. That whole 80s power dressing culture really chimes well with the themes of the play!

Molière is often quoted as France’s answer to William Shakespeare. As audiences across the globe prepare to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, what do you consider to be the main similarities between the two writers?

There are a number of similarities between Molière and Shakespeare, the main being that we are still talking about and performing their plays to this day. Like Shakespeare, Molière was an instrumental figure in the theatre of his day and, for that reason, is very much a part of France’s collective imagination.
As professionals too, both men were similar in the sense that they were actors as well as playwrights with a practical understanding of the world of the theatre, despite writing at very different times and in very different contexts.

What unites them above all, I think, is their ability to see beyond the particular to the universal. Ben Johnson famously described Shakespeare as ‘not of an age but for all time’ and I think the same could be said of Molière’s writing. Love, Marriage, inter-generational conflict, the clash of old and new – these are perennial themes that will never stop being relevant to audiences, no matter how much time or culture moves on.
Why should people come and see The Sisterhood?

It’s a liberating laugh! It’s upbeat, it’s positive and, above all, it’s very, very funny. At its heart, The Sisterhood is a romantic comedy about a family at war with itself. I think that’s something that most of us can relate to at some point or another in our lives! The of course, there’s the added bonus of the retro score which is bound to appeal to any child of the 80s, as well as the wonderfully over-the-top fashions of the era, which includes both the trends we knew and loved and those we’d rather forget…

The Sisterhood plays on the Belgrade B2 stage from Sat 30 Jan – Sat 20 Feb.

For tickets, call the Belgrade Theatre Box Office on 024 7655 3055 or visit the website where cheaper tickets are available.