Molière, in an adaptation by Roger McGough
English Touring Theatre and Liverpool Playhouse
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring
Tartuffe is very much of its time and place: it is difficult for a modern version to achieve the shock of the first production (in Versailles in 1664) which led to the play being banned by Louis XIV and nearly resulted in Molière's being excommunicated. Indeed, the Archbishop of Paris threatened excommunication to anyone who watched, performed in or even read it. To achieve that kind of effect, the whole setting needs to be changed, as Serdar Bilis did in his 2004 Muslim version at the Arcola.
This version, commissioned and first performed at Liverpool Playhouse in 2008 under the direction of Gemma Bodinetz (who also directed this production), plays down the religious satire, plays up the comedy and keeps the setting firmly in its time.
The cleverly designed set (the home of the family of Orgon) by Ruari Murchison is based on the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the richly detailed costumes are of the period and the performance style varies from stylised movement (movement director Bernadette Iglich) to high farce: at one point we have Tartuffe chasing about the stage without his trousers. There is even much play with two double doors and a concealed cupboard in true farce mode.
And of course, in traditional comic style, there's the servant who is not backwards in coming forward when (s)he sees her betters doing something wrong (the maid Dorine, who reminds me very much of Despina in Così fan tutte almost 130 years later, so full of potential is that function in comedy).
There are even not-too-subtle references to modern comedy: Ilan Goodman's Damis, the son of the household, often looks and sounds like Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder and Emily Pithon's Mariane, his sister, was clearly inspired by Miranda Richardson's Queen in the same series.
For me, however, the real joy of this version is Roger McGough's script. He replaces Molière's alexandrines with English rhyming couplets and misses no opportunity for some hilariously dreadful rhymes. One change that he does make is to make Tartuffe speak in prose, which differentiates him from the rest, signalling his lower class origins and making him clearly the outsider - and a ponderous outsider at that!.
It is a credit to director Bodinetz and the cast that these disparate strands all come together to make a satisfying - and extremely funny - whole. Yes, the sharp satire is no longer centrestage, although it is still there, but modern audiences are so used to this kind of hypocrisy being portrayed that it isn't a strong enough hook on which to hang a play, so this Tartuffe focuses more on the blindness of Mme Pernelle and Orgon.
It's very much an ensemble piece, with the whole company giving spirited and energetic performances, and the Newcastle audience loved it. So did I!
"Tartuffe" runs until 1st October at Northern Stage and then tours to Richmond, Exeter, Brighton, Ipswich and Watford
Reviewer: Peter Lathan