Photo caption: A family portrait of the cast of The Hypochondriac. Photo credit Sally Gaule

A hilarious comedy about doctors who exploit their patients opened to a responsive and appreciative audience at Wits Theatre last Thursday.

The Hypochondriac was written by Moliere, the French equivalent of Shakespeare, but the Wits drama students used an English translation by Charles Heron. Emilie Owen, 4th year BA dramatic arts, who is excellent in the lead female role of Toinette, a cheeky maid, said she had a lot of fun playing her character.

“I think people should come and watch for a good laugh,” she said.

“You see yourself on stage”

Director Jenni-lee Crewe said she wanted the characters in the play to be familiar to audiences “because that’s what makes satire work. You see yourself or someone you know on the stage.” She said the play would have been visually stunning if the actors had worn 17th century costumes instead of the modern costumes they wear in Wits performance. Crewe chose contemporary costumes to make the character more identifiable.

“… You want the audience to say ‘Oh, there’s the gold digger wife. There’s the uptight doctor. There’s the dodgy lawyer.’ You want them to be able to see those stereotypes. Then it’s funny,” Crewe said. The doctor’s son Thomas Diafoirus – played by Mark Hyde, 4th-year BA dramatic arts, – had the audience in stitches. Crewe said the Thomas character poked fun at the self-important attitude that some academics have.

“He’s a ridiculous character. He relies on book smarts and takes himself too seriously… I think it’s quite interesting to perform it at Wits. It’s good to laugh at ourselves. I think it’s kinda healthy in a way.”

“Learning and growing”

When Vuvuzela asked Crewe if the Thomas character was over-exaggerated and if he distracted the audience’s attention from the other actors on stage, she replied:

“Often what we have told them is that less is more and that sometimes stillness is more powerful than movement. It’s a very difficult style to do. It’s a learning process and they are still learning.”

Owen agreed. “It’s about learning and growing. As a cast, we’ve done exactly that.”

Photo caption: Neka Da Costa and James Cairns as Beryl and Argan, the hypochondriac. Photo credit: Sally Gaule

She said she had learnt a lot from James Cairns, who co-directed the play with Crewe. Cairns is a professional actor and also played the title role of the hypochondriac, Argan, opposite Owen. Owen said: “He comes with a lot of experience, how he approaches the character, his presence on stage, how he interacts with the cast… the energy he brings to the play. He is always present. He is always giving.” Lurdes Laice, 4th year BA dramatic arts, was cleverly cast as Beline, Argan’s sexy and scheming wife. Laice confessed that she was initially intimidated by working with Cairns.

“He’s a real professional. People pay to watch him. I feel very small.”

She said Cairns taught her about the reality of performing in South Africa.

“You’re not going to be coddled. It’s tough. And they want thinking actors.”

The Hypochondriac runs until April 21 at the Wits Theatre.