Full Circle
By Kamal Sunavala

Thursday night I went to Švandovo divadlo to see Škola pro ženy which is Moliere's original play L'Ecole des Femmes (School for Wives). This, of course, was his accolade winning play which put him firmly in the Theatre du Palais Royal in 1662.

I watched it being performed by a Czech troupe in Czech with English subtitles at the theatre. God bless Daniel Hrbek, the director of the theatre, his lovely woman Friday Lucie Kolouchová and the good people at the theatre who now organise a lot of popular plays at Švandovo divadlo with English subtitles for people like me who adore theatre but can't possibly understand that kind of Czech.

The audience was mainly Czech with a few of us expats thrown in, who braved a seven degree wind to come out for Moliere. I have to happily say that the translation was almost perfect. With a few minor errors, none of which altered the quality of the translation, the play's full satirical bloom was presented in a thoroughly enjoyable manner. The lead man who played Arnolphe was brilliant. The body language spoke volumes and at times it wasn't necessary to read the English subtitles. The girl who played Agnes was cute enough but her sweetness which forms the very basis of two men falling in love with her was erratic at best. Also, her expressions were older and that sometimes made her a slightly incredible character. The physical comedy which characterises this satire was ever present between all the performers and a delight to watch. It reminded me of the good old days when it was simply sufficient to make an audience laugh without having to give them an intellectual reason for the laughter. Good old fashioned comedy in small doses to keep an audience enthralled is a very difficult art. From experience - and any professional actor will corroborate this - I can tell you that the single most difficult thing for an actor to do is to make an audience burst into genuine laughter. Not only did these Czech actors do that but with supreme confidence and finesse, an art, I have to say I have not often seen in Czech stage artists in the three years that I have watched productions here.

Those who know the play know that it is a satire about the ideal wife that men want. One who sews, knits, cooks, cleans, serves, obeys, respects and does not think or speak unless her husband wants her to. Of course he wrote it as an intentional satire, a laughable essay on how tiring intelligent women can get for their husbands and wouldn't it be funny to have a simple mechanical yet loving doll for a wife. It met with applause in France in 1662 by an enchanted king and his subjects. It met with great applause in Prague in 2005 by a greatly amused audience, both Czech and foreign who appreciated the intricacies of satirical dialogue.

What greatly struck me as I rode home was a singular thought. A sobering one. One that wasn't welcome after a wonderful night of theatre. This play with its mock-demeaning place for women would be true in some countries today. In 2005, there would be a majority group of men in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or China who wouldn't get that it was a satire. After nearly four hundred years, Moliere's attempt at satire has come full circle. It is a sad truth that still prevails in some cultures. Where women are treated like chattel. Where all men are Arnolphe.

I am delighted that finally there is a theatre like Švandovo divadlo which is giving the National Theatre a run for its money by giving us good theatre. In the end, when the curtain falls, there is nothing better than a full house that leaves, knowing it will return.