Tartuffe

Molière, in a new version by Stewart Howson

NTC Touring Theatre on tour

(2002)

Review by Peter Lathan

In spite of his stature as one of the greats of French theatre - and probably France's greatest writer of comedy - we see little of Molière in this country. If we do, it's likely to be Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme or Tartuffe. Earlier this year the National gave us their production of Ranjit Bolt's new version of the latter, starring Martin Clunes of Men Behaving Badly fame, and now NTC Touring Theatre is taking another new version, by Sheffield-born Stewart Howson, around the country.

NTC tours, normally, to rural areas and usually plays in non-theatre spaces (although I saw it at the Customs House in South Shields), so, unlike the RNT production, technically this has to be cut to the bone. And so it was: six small plinths on which the six actors could stand, a large mirror frame up against the back cloth, and a string of coloured lights. There were also what I assume to be footlights along the front of the stage. Alas, they weren't practical, so it's hard to imagine why they were there.

Director Gillian Hambleton makes considerable use of techniques from the Commedia dell' Arte: masks (although blank white full-face masks, not the Commedia-style half-masks), stylised movement, "significant" poses, and a lovely parody of the Harlequinade transformation scene (which becomes a very funny running joke).

The play opens with the cast entering, in pierrot costume, and singing the prologue. I conmfess that my heart sank: it was not good. Diction was very poor - I doubt I caught one word in ten - and a gradual but definite difference in tempo between the singers and the (recorded) music developed. For the next five or six minutes, too, diction was a problem. The cast obviously felt that the rhyming couplets had to be attacked with vigour, but they went at it too vigorously and the audience had a hard time catching up. However we did, the cast settled into a more comfortable pace and, from that moment on, we didn't look back.

It was a brilliant idea to cast David Tarkenter (Tartuffe) also as Madame Pernelle, the domineering grandmother. He played her in the style of Billy Dainty's pantomime dames and his sweeps across the stage, complete with darting hen-like upper-body movement, were hilarious.

In fact, once the problems of the first few minutes were past, the whole show was hilarious: an always appropriate mélange of accents (Scottish, Cockney, Geordie, "posh"), the stylised movement, the exaggerated characters, and - especially - a superb version of the famous table scene.

A cast of six means a lot of doubling and Hambleton changed this necessity into a virtue: Andrew Crawford played not only Orgon but also his son Damis, who was also, at times, played by Erica Rogers, whose main part was Orgon's daughter Marianne, although she also played other, smaller, parts. John Downham was Elmire's (that's Orgon's wife) brother Cleante, but he also played Marianne's lover Valere. In fact, the only cast members who did not have to change character were Christine Perle (Elmire) and Bidi Iredale, who played Dorine, the cheeky servant (as so often in Molière, a wonderful part). No complaints about any of them!

This was the first stop, after opening at NTC's home, the Alnwick Playhouse, on a tour which runs through to 8th November, taking in Scotland, Wales and many parts of England. There are full details of the tour here.