Poet Roger McGough talks Molière and Saga cruises ahead of his new Liverpool Playhouse gig.
Although he has just celebrated his 75th birthday, Roger McGough shows absolutely no sign of showing down. I recently enjoyed an hour or so with him outside his local, discussing his latest poetry collection As Far as I Know, a collection that, if anything, is even more subversive and mischievously entertaining than the Mersey Sound poems that made his name in the 1960s. Now we are at the Liverpool Playhouse for the launch of its new season, talking about one of its highlights, his adaptation of Molière’s classic satirical comedy The Misanthrope. The tale of poet Alceste, who embarks on a one-man crusade against the forked-tongues, frippery and fakery of high society, it is McGough’s third Molière adaptation, after Tartuffe and The Hypochondriac. Director Gemma Bodinetz has coined the term “McGoughiere” for their serial collaboration.
“Your only qualm about doing Molière, or anything I suppose, for the third time is will it be as good, or will people just think it’s the same thing?” he admits. “But you hope that the verse will carry it, and as you do these things you do develop little conceits, so you just hope that doesn’t repeat itself too much. I did Molière at university but didn’t enjoy it very much – possibly my fault, possibly the lecturer’s. You had to do it on your own really and having been to the sort of school that was highly disciplined, as soon as I got to university things fell apart. My essays on Sartre and existentialism got me through!”
I thought we were Molièred out but then we thought ‘how about a trio?’
It was when Liverpool was designated European Capital of Culture in 2008 that Gemma Bodinetz first asked McGough to do something – and suggested Molière’s Tartuffe. “I was both pleased and horrified,” he says, “thinking ‘It’s nice to be asked but I can’t do it’. I picked up a prose version of it anyway and a very good version in verse. I was employed to go on one of those Saga cruises – don’t laugh, it’s a good gig – so I thought I would take the books, have a go and have two weeks to think up an excuse for not doing it. But once I started, I found I was able to give its characters a distinct voice. I got back and said ‘I’ll do it’, then picked up Molière in French to see that what he was doing was what was in the English translations.
“His voice came to me,” he says. “I had Molière’s picture on the side of the desk and tried to be true to him. That was a success and then we did another one, The Hypochondriac. Again, the voices speak to you and the whole thing takes care of itself. There were little McGoughisms in it.
“I thought we were Molièred out but then we thought ‘how about finishing a trio?’ So I looked at various other Molière plays: Don Juan, The Miser and so forth. I started each one but couldn’t find the voice. I’d kept away from The Misanthrope because it had been done, quite recently back then, by Keira Knightley and Damien Lewis in a very modern version. But I gave it a try, keeping Molière in my head all the time and the voices took off. It’s a very different play from the other two in that there’s less happening, less farce, and there’s no big glitterball ending where everything is resolved. But that didn’t worry me because that’s a challenge for the director.”