The main attraction for many people coming to see Lindsay Posner's Tartuffe at the National Theatre is a rare stage appearance by TV and film star Martin Clunes. They may be somewhat surprised to see that the award-winning star of Men Behaving Badly does not make his appearance until 55 minutes into the play.
Ashley Martin-Davies' set is quite spectacular. A miniature manor house has been placed on a revolve so that we can effortlessly moving from living room to bedroom or drawing room. Behind this is a massive mural and fresco that might have been painted by Titian. Rather confusingly, this is covered with an assortment of words in neon bulbs with tangential relevance to the play that light up between scenes. The effect can be dazzling.
Ranjit Bolt's new translation of Molière's classic often sparkles. His rhyming couplets are rarely strained and frequently hilarious. It must be a great pleasure to the cast to be given so many opportunities to raise belly laughs from their audience. In particular, Margaret Tyzack as Madame Pernelle, the most credulous character of all, and Deborah Gillett as Dorine excel with their timing and wit.
There is always a danger of overacting when playing comedy of this type. On occasions, several of the actors fall into this trap presumably with the connivance of their director.
The tale will be familiar to many, David Threlfall's Orgon, sporting a Van Dyck beard, is a good, wealthy man if not very bright and tends to act like a character straight out of Monty Python. He invites a Rasputin-like priest into his home with disastrous consequences. He hangs on his every word and will not be persuaded by others tha, rather than the Son of God, he has invited a veritable devil to instruct him.
This simple structure allows the weak and eventually disappointed Orgon to watch his world crumble while the sinister holy man takes over his wife and his household. Martin Clunes plays a deep voiced, hypocritical but not especially wicked Tartuffe. To his credit, he manages to restrain his instincts other than on the odd occasion when his eyes characteristically flash around to the enjoyment of the audience.
Surprisingly, he seems to lack a little colour with neither great highs nor lows. He might perhaps have learned a great deal from studying one of his more recent predecessors, Anthony Sher, who seemed to enjoy the hero's outrageous behaviour far more.
This production is well worth seeing for not only the performances of Martin Clunes and his colleagues but, especially for lovers of Molière and his language. This has been well represented by Ranjit Bolt's racy, contemporary translation. This really captures the spirit of the original, whilst being unafraid to use language that would have meant nothing to its author three and a half centuries before.
For two and a half hours, there is hardly a let-up in the humour and that alone is worth the price of the ticket.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher