Theatre review: Thon Man Moliere, Edinburgh

People who work in theatre often say farewell with a moment of reflection on theatre itself; and although this final production of the Lyceum's 50th Anniversary season, and of Mark Thomson's acclaimed 13 years as artistic director, is in the capable hands of associate director Tony Cownie, it nonetheless makes as rich, beautiful, and entertaining a coda as Thomson could possibly wish for, at his moment of leave-taking.

Thon Man Moliere is a truly exquisite evening of theatrical reflection. Picture: Michaela Bodlovic
Thon Man Moliere is a truly exquisite evening of theatrical reflection. Picture: Michaela Bodlovic

Thon Man Moliere | Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh | Rating ****

Written in a powerful, flexible Scots vernacular by Scotland’s mighty Makar emerita Liz Lochhead, Thon Man Moliere takes up the story of the life of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin de Moliere, known to his company as “Pokie”, at a moment of midlife crisis when his fiercely satirical play-writing genius is bringing him into ever-sharper conflict with powerful forces in 17th century French society, and even with his great patron, King Louis XIV.

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The first draft of Tartuffe, Moliere’s great satire on religious hypocrisy, also alarms his long-time company partner and ex-lover, the actress Madeleine Bejart, who thinks he should ca’ canny. And when Pokie’s roving eye falls on Madeleine’s 16-year-old “sister” Menou (actually her daughter by another former lover), the row escalates into a full-scale tragi-comedy of truth, lies, love, lust, longing and mortality, all mirrored in a perfectly-turned comic subplot involving the failing marriage of vain leading man Du Parc, and his lovely ageing-ingenue wife, Therese.

Lochhead’s play is freely inspired by her own great translation of Tartuffe, which premiered at the Lyceum exactly 30 years ago, and by her 2008 version of School For Wives; and it also mines centuries’ worth of existing theatrical wisdom, in a magpie-like way that great playwrights from Shakespeare to Moliere himself would have recognised.

Yet given a superb ensemble performance from Cownie’s beautifully-chosen company, this powerful act of memory finally becomes a truly exquisite evening of theatrical reflection. Neil Murray’s breathtaking backstage design is almost 1970’s Citizens-like in its glorious theatrical lyricism; Jimmy Chisholm is magnificent as Moliere, delivering Lochhead’s language with a combination of earthiness and elegance that does rare, full justice to its emotional range. Siobhan Redmond matches him completely as Madeleine; Nicola Roy, Sarah Miele, Steven McNicoll and James Anthony Pearson are flawless and hilarious in support. And at the centre, in a final tribute to Moliere, stands Molly Innes’s unforgettable, all-seeing maid Toinette, keeping the whole show on the road with her hot milk and tisanes, and deploying her fateful catch-phrase “I’ll no say it, but…” until the audience finds itself suddenly, brilliantly caught, somewhere between laughter, tears, and eternity.

• Until 11 June.