During the 17th century European quack doctors had it made.
If your illness wasn’t God’s punishment, then you could expect the local quack in your town to produce a nostrum that rivalled anything Shakespeare’s trio of witches might have dreamed up in Macbeth.
And if you required surgery it was time to gather your relatives around preparatory to saying your final goodbyes since doctors were ignorant both about the shape of bones in the body and the function of the vital organs.
When Louis X1V suffered an anal fistula, prayers were said in churches throughout France as the operation to cure the Sun King was begun (without anaesthetics, of course!) and miraculously was successful. Yuppy courtiers at Versailles, who copied the king in everything hoping for a favour, immediately had anal fistulas – they became fashionable and the ensuing operations became well-attended theatrical events.
Louis supported Moliere and when his plays were ordered off the French stage, the king intervened and performances which knocked the established Church not to mention the dodgy, greedy medical profession, continued.
Obviously The Hypochondriac satirises both doctors and the clientele which supported them.
In this enthusiastic production which goes like the clappers, the wealthy, illness obsessed Argan (Tony Robinson) is at death’s door daily. Yet it never quite opens.
His faithful servant Toinette (the quite superb Tracie Bennett) rushes around with well-used chamber pots, containing revolting things the fickle-stomached, like me, would rather not discuss, but which are inspected assiduously by Toinette, a process Argan follows closely with fascination as nauseating things are waved about.
In the manner of European 17th theatre, Moliere puts in a young daughter, Angelique, (Lisa Diveney) who faces life in a Bulgarian nunnery if she defies her father’s wishes and marries the man she loves, the young musician Cleante (the excellent Jordan Metcalfe). Add to this the wonderfully droll Imogen Stubbs as Beline, Argon’s deceptive wife ( she loathes him so he has her sawn in half ) and you have a play which is richly funny and beautifully acted by a large company.
But go with a strong stomach, the songs from a modern quartet (unnecessary to my mind) milk the anal theme to its limits and there is a scene where Argan has an eye-watering although here burlesqued, enema.
But how good it is, with so much poorly-conceived nonsense swaggering across our local stages, to see a great classic again. Lindsay Posner and Lisa Blair directed with style.
* The Hypochondriac will be on at Richmond Theatre, Richmond upon Thames from November 24.