I very recently finished playing the lead role of Arnolphe in a French-language production of Molière’s L’Ecole des femmes. A successful and satisfying show for me, inspired as I was by the energy displayed by Mark Rylance in his exceptional performance as Rooster in Jes Butterworth’s Jerusalem. I remember being knocked out when I found out that, as well as having to perform the nearly 3-hour show, in which he was barely off-stage for more than a minute or two, every night other than Monday, and sometimes twice a day, he even stepped up to play in an understudy performance.
For those unaware, understudy performances are invitation-only showcases for those cast members understudying the main roles in a play. It is a chance for them to exercise their characters, sometimes even ‘rehearse’ them for the first time, and to be seen by their own or potential agents and casting directors. When I heard Rylance had stepped up to play his role in one of these shows (for which he would not have been paid) on a day when there was also a paid run in the evening, I thought two things: one – there must be no understudy for his role – so if Rylance is ill or incapacitated, the show’s cancelled. Quite a risk for a producer. And, two – where does he get the energy? And then I realised: it’s because he loves bringing Rooster to life whenever he can. A lesson for any actor.
Back to Arnolphe then. Arnolphe, in a full-length version, is a role to rival Rooster for lines. Of the 1800 or so in the play, he has more than half of them. While the production I was in cut many of those lines, there will still over 600 left. About the same as Romeo in an uncut version of Romeo and Juliet. Not that near to Hamlet, with 1500, but a substantial amount all the same.
More pertinently, he leaves the stage for just one scene. Our show wasn’t 180 minutes long, it was closer to 80, but that’s a good 75 minutes of stage time. Which means that the audience must not be allowed under any circumstances to get bored of seeing him.
Fortunately, the play is written so well that every scene includes a reversal and/or an opportunity for Arnolphe to show off his outrageous misogyny. The audience can chuckle along with, or at, Arnolphe’s ridiculous views, and get drawn in to his attempts to overcome the surprising obstacles thrown in his way. I remember thinking that this is a little like what Shakespeare’s Richard III has to do. In that play, Richard invites the audience to come on his journey into evil – a successful production will have you almost rooting for Richard by the end, despite his outrageous actions. You grow to admire, perhaps even like, his cunning and his guile. Why do this? Because spending time with a villain has to be enjoyable. If all you do is think “I wish this guy would shut up or that someone would shut him up”, the writer (and actor) has failed. If on the other hand you have people thinking “I can’t bear to watch, yet can’t look away”, then you’re winning.
Take Alf Garnett in Till Death Do Us Part. An unabashed racist. Yet he’s the lead character. How do you get away with that? By making him amusing to listen to, either because you agree with his outrageous views or because you disagree. And how do you do that? By making him, in some way, likeable. And how do you do that? Therein lies the writer’s magic.
I was asked, in an impromptu Q&A with French students at the Lycée français in South Kensington, London, whether I had tried to follow either the line of portraying Arnolphe as either mesquin (mean) or simply anxieux (worried). I rather blurted out the answer “both”, and tried to make the point I am making above. What I really meant to say was that Arnolphe is, after all, just a man with all these flaws; if you don’t bring this humanity to the performance, no-one will care if he wins out or is defeated. Indeed if you just saw him as either one of these, you’d soon lose interest in the play altogether.
Arnolphe does the wrong thing to Agnès out of fear of being humiliated: who does not also share this fear? He cares for her in an overbearing way, not wanting her to grow up: which parent has not also uttered the words “I wish they could always be like this” (even if they would never ever follow through on that thought)? Why is Peter Pan so appealing? Why does literature mourn the loss of innocence? So while we could not see ourselves doing what Arnolphe does or has done, we can fathom his deepest motives, and have no need to see them as purely evil, even if they are, morally.
Finally, in the last scene with Agnès where he goes from anger to emotional collapse, begging her to love him: who has not felt that passionately about someone that they would literally rather die than see the person leave? And so, when you see Arnolphe in this state, however much you find his pygmalionesque control of Agnès repellent, you see a side of him which has been there all along: his desire to love and be loved, and his fear of being vulnerable. And it’s very hard not to pity him – and to wonder how that happened in such a short space of time.
Arnolphe was a brilliant character to bring to life and I hope I made him seem human to those who saw the show. If I didn’t, it certainly wasn’t Molière’s fault!
(A footnote: none of this would have been possible without the brilliance of Loetitia Delais, Rachel Gemaehling, Victor Klein and Alex Poli in the cast, and Gigi Robarts as director.)