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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 26th November 2005

The Hypochondriac / I Am My Own Wife / Cyprus

According to Patricia Hewitt, the people to blame for the depletion of the government's flu vaccine stocks are the "worried well". How timely, then, that a new production of The Hypochondriac should have just opened, since Moliere gives the lie to anyone seeking to blame a health crisis on overanxious patients. Of course, we hardly need a satirist to point out the absurdity of the Health Secretary's spin on the story since flu jabs, by definition, are intended for people who haven't yet caught the disease, but it's always nice to be reminded of the rapaciousness of the medical profession.

Just how nice in this particular instance? Well, it's hard to imagine a better production of this French farce. Richard Bean, the translator, is a very funny playwright in his own right and the cast, led by Henry Goodman, manage to keep the laughter bubbling away. Yet Moliere's play is such a rusty old antique it's hard to work up much enthusiasm for it. The jokes are too broad, the farcical plotting isn't nearly ingenious enough and the comic set pieces take far too long to arrive and then, almost immediately, outstay their welcome. I came away from the theatre feeling as I nearly always do having just seen a "classic" by a legendary farceur, namely, that the best contemporary comedy writers, such as Ricky Gervais and Larry David, are infinitely superior. On the strength of The Hypochondriac, I doubt Moliere could get a job on Ben Elton's latest sitcom--and that's saying something.

I Am My Own Wife is a better play, but it, too, fails to live up to its advanced billing. The writer, Doug Wright, certainly has a great subject in the form of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an East German transvestite who managed to escape the persecution of both the Nazis and the Communists and, at the same time, set up a museum that concealed a gay nightclub in its basement. Yet I wasn't convinced that the play deserved the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Doug Wright first became aware of this character's existence in the early 90s and he managed to persuade various charitable foundations to fund a succession of trips to Germany so he could interview her with a view to turning her life story into a play. Several years into the project, however, he encountered a problem: Charlotte von Mahlsdorf wasn't everything she seemed. It transpired that she'd been an informer for the Stasi and there was some evidence--admittedly, not conclusive--that she'd dropped a dime on a colleague in the antiques business who then spent several years in jail. At this point, Wright could have turned sleuth and tried to get to the bottom of this story, but instead he decided to make a virtue out of this ambiguity, linking it to all the usual platitudes about the unreliability of historical "facts" and the subjectivity of truth. In a sense, Wright wants to have it both ways. He chose to write a documentary play about a real person, and embraced the power and authority that his work was thereby invested with, yet the moment he encountered some genuine uncertainty regarding the facts he threw up his hands and claimed dramatic license. The upshot is that watching I Am My Own Wife is a frustrating experience. By the end of the play I was interested enough in this bizarre character to want to know the answers to precisely those questions that Doug Wright elected to sidestep.

Cyprus is a fairly modest espionage thriller by a Scottish playwright called Peter Arnott that's set in a country house on the Isle of Mull. It's not particularly original--Arnott's research doesn't appear to have extended much beyond reading the collected works of John Le Carre--and the plot takes an awfully long time to emerge from the fog of the Cold War, but it's solidly constructed and Arnott knows how to keep things rattling along at a good clip. The espionage thriller is such a well-worn genre I came to Cyprus with almost no expectations--and no doubt that contributed to my enjoyment. It's playing at the West End's smallest venue--a tiny, 100-seat studio that used to be the back half of the stalls at the Whitehall Theatre--and it's coming off on December 17th, probably never to be seen again. It won't be proclaimed as a classic and I doubt it'll win any awards, yet of all the plays I saw last week it's the only one I'd recommend.

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