John Donnelly’s new translation of Molière’s classic 17th century satire shoehorns in contemporary references and profanity, and sets the action in wealthy Highgate, but falls short of truly capturing the spirit of either farce or barbed social commentary.
Tartuffe is the story of a well-heeled family man, Orgon, who finds meaning in life when he meets a vagrant who seems to have religious purity and an insight into his soul: in fact, he has met a trickster who means to alienate his children, seduce his wife, and relieve him of home and fortune.
Despite a clever set by Robert Jones which has numerous hiding places for an underused cast, it takes a long time for us to get the measure of the piece and the atmosphere Donnelly and director Blanche McIntyre are trying to create. References to Russell Brand and resting actors who are happy to act as cut-throat murderers when they are not “in Holby” feel forced, and the contemporary setting loses something of the power of the original play.
Susan Engel’s matriarch encountering the nude champagne socialist poet gives initial amusement, but Kevin Doyle’s Orgon comes across as foolish and blinkered from the start, and Denis O’Hare’s Tartuffe is a comic creation who seems to sit awkwardly in a discussion of 21st century money problems (although I loved some of his comedy routines in the broad sense, dropping trousers and wrangling with ladies’ underwear).
Much better is the shorter second half, in which whiny and pampered Mariane (Kitty Archer) weighs up the ills of marriage for convenience against the need to go out and work, and Tartuffe and Elmire (Olivia Williams) engage in a pantomime for the benefit of the blinkered husband.
However, I disliked the ending which seemed to wander into a realm where it is OK to cheat, connive and corrupt if you’re rich, despite the final speech in which the homeless crowd the stage and seem to ask for our empathy.
Tartuffe continues at the National Theatre, having just announced additional performances.