Roger's made of the write stuff

Moliere's The Hypochondriac is coming to Ipswich's New Wolsey Theatre as a highlight of the autumn season.

Moliere's The Hypochondriac is coming to Ipswich's New Wolsey Theatre as a highlight of the autumn season. AL SENTER chats to poet Roger McGough about adapting the great work for the modern audience.

ROGER McGough is a man of many parts.

Poet, performer, pop star and playwright, he has always been an enthusiastic populariser of the arts.

Both as one third of the poetic trio whose work appeared in the best-selling The Mersey Sound and as the genial host of BBC Radio Four's Poetry Please, McGough has devoted a large part of his creative life to taking the po-face out of poetry.

But even such an accomplished Renaissance Man as McGough is happy to add a few new skills to his portfolio of talents.

Take his latest incarnation as a lively and inspired adaptor of the 17th century comedies of the French dramatist Moliere. In 2008, he tackled Tartuffe, Moliere's biting attack on religious hypocrisy and now McGough has turned his attention to The Hypochondriac in which Moliere ridicules the pretentions of the medical profession and mocks the health-obsessed dupe whom they exploit.

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Yet for all his proven success in so many different fields, McGough is a modest man who invariably doubts his own credentials when given a new challenge. "I'm always inclined to say no at first," he says.

Such was his response when Gemma Bodinetz, artistic director for the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, rang him with an intriguing offer.

"Gemma said that she'd like me to do something for Liverpool's impending Year of Culture and that she was thinking of directing a production of Tartuffe and did I know the play?

“Initially I rather dismissed the idea. I was rather hoping that she might be interested in one of my own plays that hadn't seen the light of day for some time and so I sent her a copy of Summer With Monika. But Gemma ignored all this and asked me again if I were interested in adapting Tartuffe.

“I'd read French at university and so I had come across Moliere without really knowing his work. So I agreed to take several existing versions of the play with me when I went on a Saga cruise as a kind of writer in captivity.

“I couldn't think of an excuse not to do it and since I'd only be required to do two hour-long shows in the two weeks of the cruise, I knew that I'd have time on my hands. So I gradually got into the task."

McGough downplays his own dramatic skills.

"I've never felt that I've really cracked the business of writing plays." he confesses.

"Everyone says witty things in my work for the stage and so all the characters tend to sound the same. Often what I've written for the theatre or the screen has had touches of surrealism as in The Commission which I wrote for Peter James at the Everyman in 1967. It was about a man who'd been commissioned to write a play but who is unable to finish it.

“This was the type of work I was doing just as playwrights such as Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell were beginning to write about the Liverpool working classes and so I missed out completely on that school."

But he found Moliere a very congenial writing partner.

"He supplied the plot and the cast of characters and as I started to work on the version, I surprised myself by how quick I was in coming up with the lines."

Tartuffe turned out to be one of the biggest successes of the City of Culture theatre programme and naturally Gemma Bodinetz was keen to have another sip of the unique blend of Moliere and McGough. But which play was it to be?

"Once again it was time for the Saga cruise and once again I took a number of previous versions of a Moliere play with me.

“Again I was initially a bit dubious. In the original, there are a number of interludes which were clearly designed to please the King: the story would mark time while the speciality acts came on and did their stuff.

“I wondered how I could get round this problem. I knew that I'd eventually have to be brave and cut all this extraneous material. Once again, once I'd started, it came very easily.

“When I eventually looked at the original version, I saw immediately that Moliere hadn't written it in verse. Had I known this, I'd have probably stuck to prose as well. But this time around I was more sure of myself and I felt able to add a few jokes of my own. And if Moliere had brought the house down when the play was first performed in 1673, then I wanted to do the same for him in 2009.”

Compared with the limited knowledge of a 17th century doctor, today's medical practitioner is infinitely more skilled and is able to cure us of diseases that would have proved fatal in Moliere's day. Nevertheless there are distinct parallels between Moliere's era and our own.

"Take colonic irrigation." says McGough. "That was all the rage with young upper-class women for a while. Didn't Princess Di go in for it?

“The medical profession can still be very snotty about reflexology and other forms of alternative medicine and surgeons still tend to be authority figures with upper-class accents.

“If Argan, the Hypochondriac of the title, suffers from anything, it is blindness. He is unable to see his family for what it is, he is blind to what is happening around him and he is willing to sacrifice his family to the doctors who so impress him with their supposed knowledge."

The New Wolsey presents Roger McGough's adaptation of Moliere's The Hypochondriac from November 3 to 7. To book tickets please visit www.wolseytheatre.co.uk or call the New Wolsey Box Office on 01473 295900.

What plays do you enjoy seeing at the New Wolsey? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send an e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

Argan is a perfectly healthy, wealthy gentleman, convinced that he is seriously ill. So obsessed is he with medicinal tinkerings and tonics that he is blind to the goings-on in his own household.

However, his most effective cure will not appear in a bottle or a bedpan, but in his sharp-tongued servant, Toinette, who has a cunning plan to reveal the truth and open her master's eyes.

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