Hilary Bell’s new version of Molière’s The Hypochondriac was commissioned by Black Swan State Theatre Company, and is currently having its premiere season for Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Directed by Jo Turner, it has Darren Gilshenan in the title role and a cast that also includes Gabriel Fancourt, Sophie Gregg, Emma Harvie, Lucia Mastrantone, Jamie Oxenbould and Monica Sayers. Hilary Bell spoke to Limelight about her adaptation.

Hypochondriac, Hilary BellThe Hypochondriac. All photographs © Robert Catto

Was the idea of adapting Molière’s The Hypochondriac yours? And what was it about the play that appealed to you?

I was in an ongoing conversation with Black Swan’s then-Artistic Director Kate Cherry about adapting a classic. She’d directed my translation of The Seagull and we were keen to do more. When Moliere’s name arose I got very excited about doing a comedy. Tartuffe is one of my favourite plays but it’s been done, and done well, many times. The Hypochondriac was a play I’d never seen. I read it and was immediately drawn to three things: the potential for scatological jokes and lazzi; the theatrical device of someone in disguise; and the subversive character of the servant Toinette. While the action revolves around Argan [the hypochondriac of the title], it’s Toinette who orchestrates that action. She unites the lovers, unmasks the charlatans, and disabuses Argan of his belief in quacks. In my version I take things further, giving her the realisation that hypochondria is a disease in itself and that stripped of his delusions, Argan has nothing. He certainly hasn’t the strength to live without the ‘props’ of his imaginary illnesses.

I believe you were keen to tackle a comedy?

The times when I’m happiest in the theatre are when I’m watching brilliant musicals and comedies. If I think back to what made me want to be in this business from childhood, there are a handful of shows that gave me such intense joy that I wanted to recreate the feeling for other people. They include John Bell’s productions of The Venetian Twins and Candide: luckily for me, as his daughter I was able to go back and see them again and again.

Getting comedy right is hard, and farce is perhaps the trickiest genre of all. The mechanics have to be flawless. I tried writing an original farce and discovered just how difficult it is, but the things I learnt from that exercise I brought to this adaptation. It was helpful having the framework of the original play, from which I departed here and there along the way and then completely in the final act.

Another impetus was my wish to create a playground for skilled, inventive actors at the top of their game, who would take my suggestions and run with them. I cleared my diary for the rehearsal period so that I could have the pleasure of being there and watching that happen, as well as to learn more about the craft from them.

What were the key decisions you made when starting the adaptation, and how important was it to you to give the women in it more agency?

One decision was to address the dramaturgy of the play. There are a few things in the original that drag it down. Among them: Argan’s long monologue at the start and Beralde’s voice-of-the-author reasoning; the characters of Louison, Purgon and Fleurant, out of whom we don’t get much mileage; and the double ‘fake deaths’ set up to reveal Beline’s and then Angelique’s true feelings. I wanted to ramp up the comedy to an extreme level in Act 3 in order to earn the ending I had in mind, so I decided to take it into the territory of full-throttle farce. I knew from the outset that I would need to reduce the cast size, and I got it down from 12 to 9. In order for this production to happen, I had to whittle it down to 7 – thus the tripling of Cléante/Beralde/Bonnefoy, which only serves to boost the hilarity.

I wanted to give Angelique more agency and wit, therefore much of Cléante’s resourcefulness is now hers. She’s also far more critical of her father and unwilling to accept her circumstances. There are aspects of the original that are very much a sign of Molière’s times, such as a father keeping his daughter locked up and forcing her into marriage – or a convent. To contemporise that idea would shift the weight of the play entirely, so unless you want that to be the focus, you need to create a unique world that straddles old and new. I’ve done that by retaining the heightened language and the commedia archetypes, while ensuring the characters are recognisable to a modern audience.

While Beline is the villain of the piece, in my version she gets away with everything. This feels truer, and provides Argan with the comeuppance he deserves. And I wanted to give Toinette the last word by having her recognise Argan’s hypochondria, and actively decide to indulge him, to re-illusion him, if you like.

Can you tell us about the idea of changing the entr’acte pastorales to musical American pharmaceutical ads?

I loved the fact that there were musical interludes in the original, and saw in them the opportunity to reinforce the vaudevillian style of the piece while playfully commenting on the play’s themes. Those TV pharmaceutical ads – idyllic scenarios undercut by a rapid disclaimer of the most alarming warnings – are outrageous in themselves. In my version, they become music-hall numbers featuring sexy nurses, clownish patients and ludicrous props. The disclaimers are pretty much taken from existing ads. (“Erectomax is flammable, smokers should take extra care.”)

Anything else you can share about the production now playing at the Eternity Playhouse in Sydney?

I feel incredibly fortunate to have had Jo Turner directing this premiere. He shares my love of Carry On movies, musical theatre and vaudeville, all of which are in the adaptation’s DNA. Carry On Matron and Benny Hill are offensive by today’s standards, but also so extreme that you can’t take them seriously. What this production does is push that kind of comedy so far that it comes full-circle. So we have, for instance, Dr Diafoirus, a dirty old man played by a woman in drag.

Jo auditioned extensively to assemble a cast of brilliant comedians, and a team of highly talented creatives. I’m deeply indebted to all of them, and to DTC, for bringing the script to life. Ultimately, the reason for putting on a show is the audience, and it’s been wonderfully gratifying to see how delighted people are, how ready and willing they are to laugh at the innocent fun the production serves up. If the audience is happy, if the actors have the opportunity to play, and if as a writer I’ve stayed true to my vision and intentions, then what more can I ask for?

The Hypochondriac plays at Sydney’s Eternity Playhouse until July 1