Long considered as one of Molière’s greatest plays, L’École des femmes (The School for Wives) promises intrigue, irony and immense humour. Luckily for us, Théâtre Odéon‘s production delivers on each and every promise, marrying modern design with Molière’s original text. If your seventeenth-century French is a bit rusty, fear not: subtitles are provided as well.
In contrast to Stéphane Braunschweig’s modern, simplistic staging, the script for L’École des femmes remains in its original form of rhyming alexandrine verse, lending a pleasant, poetic rhythm to the whole dialogue. Its elegance plays off beautifully against the heavily exaggerated body language of protagonist Arnolphe, played to perfection by Claude Duparfait, as he half-dances, half-struts through L’École des femmes‘ opening scenes.
While he announces his grand scheme to marry his young ward, Agnès – whom he has maintained in almost total ignorance as a means of preserving his own honour – Duparfait brings to life the image of the cocky, self-assured cuckold-in-waiting. Arnolphe’s intention to “marry a fool so as not to be fooled” is scrutinised by the play’s primary voice of reason: the eloquent, faintly mocking Chrysalde, portrayed here by Assane Timbo. In doing so, he establishes himself as the sublime counterpart to Arnolphe and his ridiculousness.
Suzanne Aubert offers up her Agnès as a picture of youthful naivety. Hints of her repressed spirit and sexuality are underscored by black-and-white film clips of her throughout L’École des femmes. It is as stylishly French a technique as anyone could imagine; here, it succeeds in adding an extra artistic and narrative dimension. She moves the audience with her disastrous confession to Arnolphe as she admits to falling in love with the handsome Horace. In turn, they laugh sympathetically at the young hero as he unwittingly reveals all his romantic plans to the very man who sets out to foil them. In this respect, L’École des femmes declares itself as a great lesson in comedic and dramatic irony.
Over nearly two hours of farcical misunderstandings, emotional asides and just the right amount of physical comedy, L’École des femmes takes the audience on a compelling journey to the point where it seems that all hope is gone. All loose ends are at last tied up, however, in true Molière fashion, within the final ten minutes of L’École des femmes by the last-minute Deus Ex Machina. This rapid wrapping-up can at first feel somewhat jarring, but ultimately the audience can come away satisfied in the knowledge that, to quote another beloved classical playwright, “All’s well that ends well.”
L’École des femmes is available to watch on Vimeo here