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Tartuffe

Molière, adapted by Christopher Hampton
Theatre Royal Haymarket

Paul Anderson and Audrey Fleurot Credit: Helen Maybanks
The cast of Tartuffe Credit: Helen Maybanks
Claude Perron, Olivia Ross and Sebastian Roché Credit: Helen Maybanks

London is currently in the grip of a potent dose of auteur’s theatre. At Shakespeare’s Globe, Michelle Terry has recently launched the policy of gender equal and gender neutral theatre, not necessarily doing the underlying plays any favours. Now, in a move that the producers claim is unprecedented, Molière’s 350-year-old classic, one of the best comedies ever written, is presented on the London stage in a language-blind production directed by Frenchman, Gérald Garutti.

Not only do some actors speak in French and others in English (both British and American versions), surtitles filling in the gaps for the monolingual, but periodically performers conduct alternate speeches in different languages so that, in a single scene, one actor might alternately speak to a fellow in French and another in English. Quite what benefit M. Garutti identified from this experiment, other than possibly trying to demonstrate to the British that we should remain unified with other Europeans, is unclear.

Ignoring the language barrier, Christopher Hampton has created a racy adaptation of the play, set in the United States today. For the most part, the modernisation does little to enhance the original play, creating a number of anachronisms that cannot be fully explained. However, the underlying purpose becomes apparent in the final scene when a most unexpected deus ex machina indirectly appears promoting the idea of America first.

Before that, the evening opens with the title character in crucifixion pose within an Andrew D Edwards-designed illuminated cube that changes colours, looking like a spectacular homage to Gilbert and George. This melts into a lively disco taking place at the home of Sebastien Roché’s Orgon, the biggest dupe in Christendom since the Emperor decided to acquire some new clothes.

Egged on by Annick Le Goff playing his gullible mother, the billionaire householder has invited into his home a penniless priest with an accent from the Deep South, Peaky Blinders favourite Paul Anderson portraying grungy Tartuffe. There, given free rein, the monkish penitent slowly wheedles his way into his host’s affections.

Before too long, Tartuffe has been enriched, offered by her father the hand in marriage of Olivia Ross as innocent young Marianne and made what might politely be described as inappropriate approaches to Orgon’s statuesque wife Elmire, Audrey Fleurot in this role having the good fortune to be kitted out with spectacular frocks that look as if they have only just left a catwalk.

Despite entreaties from all and sundry, Orgon makes more and more of a fool of himself in a series of scenes that are genuinely funny, albeit with a bittersweet edge, as the parable develops and plays itself out, seemingly nothing able to stop the steamrolling progress of a charlatan who has the uncanny knack of blinding his gulls to what should be obvious even to a child.

Tartuffe will always be funny, thanks to Molière’s deep understanding of human nature and the theatre. However, while updating the script adds a fresh, contemporary dynamic, along with the language issue it does little to complement or enhance a wonderful play that many viewers might feel would have been at least as good given a more traditional treatment.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher