Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist came about in rather curious circumstances. At the time, having recently graduated in languages from Oxford University – at which he had written his first play in his first year, itself making it to the West End and earning him the still unbeaten accolade of being the youngest playwright to do so – he was applying for a job in the drama department at Bristol University, when the interviewer asked him what his next play was to be.
He didn’t have an answer. So, thinking on his feet, he plucked a work by Moliere, the 17th century French satirist, from his undergraduate studies, and flipped it. The Misanthrope centres around a Versailles court figure chastised for speaking frankly, at a time when obsequiousness and politesse was the norm.
It seemed fitting, then, that as social conformities in 1970, when Hampton was writing, suggested his lead character might garner the same reaction by being nice to people at a time when social niceties were considered annoying, seemed like a good idea for a new play. It also accounts for why a play so overtly bourgeois would ever be staged at the crucible of subversive socialist anger that was The Royal Court.
Such is the premise of The Philanthropist. Philip is a gentle soul, an academic – a linguist, no less, giving Hampton some clever wordplay from his own chosen subject – who, with his fiancée, Celia, hosts a dinner party of malcontents who don’t seem to have a fair or un-sarcastic word to say about anybody. In this sea of schadenfreude, Philip bobs innocently, ‘wobbling like a pudding’ as his dissatisfied fiancée puts it.
For those who’ve never seen it, there’s certainly a memorable opening to The Philanthropist. An attention-grabbing gambit that acts as a metaphor for the diatribes that follow, we’re treated to the conceited discontent of novelist Braham (played by a suitably be-purpled and flamboyant Matt Berry), the smug neighbour, Donald (a tongue-sharp Tom Rosenthal), Lily Cole’s damaged and emotionless Araminta, the disenchanted Celia (Charlotte Ritchie) and the silent foil of Elizabeth. Floundering among them all, Simon Bird’s hapless, even innocent, Philip (type cast as an older mirror of his popular In-Betweeners character) quietly elicits plain truths, fails to get riled, or even realise when he’s causing offence.
In the first act, amid an almost constant consumption of cigarettes – you can tell when it’s originally set because there’s no way recent graduates would be able to afford boxes of cigarettes liberally dressing each table surface in 2017 – and sherry, we’re given to the outward chastising of acquaintances our cast choose to rail against in defence of their own egos. Then they all pair off with unlikely partners – again, perhaps indicative of a post-University predilection – before the second act gives over to more introspection between Celia and Philip, who proceed to unpick their unsuitability for each other in a refreshing exchange of insights into human relationships. In short, little happens bar a two-hour discourse on human idiosyncracies. But it is surprisingly engaging.
You’ll notice of this cast their age. With the exception of Berry, all are – or appear to be – only recently out of their twenties. This was a conscious decision of director Simon Callow’s (yes, the Simon Callow), perhaps even paying heed to Hampton’s original stage directions which seem to have been ignored by the original 1970 production (Alec McCowen was 45 when he played Philip at The Royal Court) and every production since. It certainly changes the dynamic.
What the actors’ ages does here is highlight just how anachronistic the play now appears to be, making the writing appear more like an intellectual diatribe by a bright young graduate, rather than a window on the ugly banter of the bourgeois behind closed doors, as perhaps it might have been when first performed.
This is not to suggest we’ve reverted to the sycophancy of the French court, but such overtly caustic cat-fighting in an age where we might now be so aware of accepting people’s differences and forgiving people’s foibles, let alone be afraid to cause offence, does rather make it seem a little out of touch. If rather entertaining all the same.
The Philanthropist runs at Trafalgar Studios until Saturday 22nd July 2017. For more information, including details of the cast, showtimes and prices, visit www.atgtickets.com.