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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
TARTUFFE
at the National (Lyttelton)

BLISTERING PACE
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Denis O'Hare and Olivia Williams/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

Has any comedy in the history of the theatre (excluding Shakespeare) been more consistently revived than Moliere’s masterpiece Tartuffe? Seemingly written on sheets of plastic that can bend and reshape itself into many forms, it has, from its conception in 1664 to the present day, miraculously retained its crowd-pleasing structure and ongoing relevance. In the last century alone, its legion of adapters has pummeled it out of all recognition in terms of its original period and place, but always with its premise intact: the religious hypocrisy, the gullibility of the privileged and an all-pervasive sense of misanthropy.

 
Less than a year ago, the Royal Shakespeare Company did a version of it by Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto that was set among Birmingham’s Muslim community where a successful Pakistani entrepreneur gives up everything he owns, including his soul, to a bogus imam.
 
With indecent haste, The National Theatre has launched its own update of this perennial favourite, but the setting, courtesy of adapter John Donnelly, is now an eye-catching, albeit over-the-top living room (the striking sets and costumes are by Robert Jones) in London’s Highgate, owned by Orgon (Kevin Doyle), a man of considerable wealth and inhabited by his equally over-the-top, dysfunctional family.
 
Common sense is hardly the first item on Orgon’s unfathomable agenda when he gives house-room to Tartuffe (Denis O’Hare), a repellant, physically unsavoury vagrant, a fraud and an imposter who manages to con his all-too-willing host into believing that he alone can provide him with the spirituality, peace of mind and moral centre absent from his life. It also transpires that Orgon is suppressing a large chunk of guilt as a result (never fully explained) of something treasonous that happened “in the last rather ill-advised war” and from which his wealth was accrued.
 
Though Orgon’s backstory might be vague, there’s nothing vague about director Blanche McIntyre’s explicit staging of the famous seduction scene in which Orgon’s wife Elmire (Olivia Williams) demonstrates to her gullible spouse just what a duplicitous fraud Tartuffe is by allowing herself to be sexually violated by him. (Orgon, unseen by Tartuffe, is hiding inside an accommodating sofa.) It is no accident that the scene speaks resonantly to the Me Too generation. 
 
What caused so much offence when Moliere first presented his play to Louis XIV was the playwright’s critical take on religious hypocrisy and his powerful condemnation of the church. French aristocracy also balked at the questioning of its moral values.
 
Today it is a play for all seasons and very generous with its pliability where the human condition is concerned. The setting and period may change, but, fundamentally, people don’t. It’s durability lies in the fact that we’re all flawed – always were, always will be.
 
Played at a pace that would leave even the great British farceur Ray Cooney breathless, McIntyre’s direction goes indiscriminately for all the laughs it can garner, and in the first 20 minutes or so the cast appears to enter a shouting competition. Fortunately, as the plot kicks in, the volume becomes bearable and the second half seems far less desperate to draw laughter at any cost. The result, of course, is that it's funnier.
 
There are many ways to interpret the character of Tartuffe, and American actor O’Hare, first seen before the play begins as a vagrant handing out daffodils to the audience, is, by design, the most eccentric, hygienically challenged, physically repugnant I can remember. Nothing subtle here. But then subtlety isn’t what this production is about. Most of the performances are larger-than-life satiric caricatures.
 
One of the key elements in any production of Tartuffe has to be the reason Orgon is so smitten with his con-man houseguest, and Donnelly’s text (which eliminates Moliere’s rhyming couplets up until the last five minutes) remains vague on this issue, leaving audiences to make what they will of the character’s gullibility, his unarticulated need to purge a guilty past, and the non-sexual love he clearly has for his scheming imposter.
 
As Orgon’s spoilt daughter Mariane, Kitty Archer indulges in a great deal of face-pulling and hyperactive body language as she expresses her privileged sense of entitlement. As Orgon’s neglected wife, Williams, despite the indignities she undergoes in the seduction scene, has style and class. There’s a fine, authoritative performance from Susan Engel as Orgon’s mother Pernelle, who, like her son, sees only sweetness and light in the man who would destroy her family.
 
A timely Tartuffe, but I have seen less frenetic, more challenging productions of it than this.

 


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