Tartuffe

Molière, translated and adapted by Ranjit Bolt
A Watermill, Newbury, production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
(2006)

Production photo

If I had said to my husband, “Do let us go and see a play by Molière, translated from the French by someone with an Indian sounding name, and Oh, by the way it’s all in rhyme” ..well I can’t tell you what his reply would have been, but it could well have been in the negative. So I went with a friend, and without a doubt this is one of the funniest comedies I have ever seen – and I have seen quite a few.

The story is of a rich man, Orgon (Des McLeer), so impressed by a poor man’s apparent religious fervour and selfless devotion to the will of God that he invites him into his house and offers his daughter in marriage. This seems a little excessive to say the least, but subtlety is not a prime requirement for this play. Orgon‘s mother (Marty Cruikshank), an outspoken old harridan who feels she is being ignored, is wheeled in to the family gathering where she proceeds to berate each member of the family in turn - at some length. The only person who has her approval is Tartuffe. She and her son idolise their new visitor, believing him to be upright, chaste, and altruistic – a paragon of virtue to be cherished - and how lucky they are to have such a holy man living beneath their roof All the rest of the family see him for what he is – a grasping conniving hypocrite – and it is not the daughter he desires, but Orgon’s wife.

The play proceeds with Orgon refusing to believe any ill of his protégé and becoming ever more absurd in his devotion. “Do you have so little wit that you can’t tell a hypocrite?” asks brother-in-law Cleante (John McAndrew) in despair, and the family are distraught at the obstinacy of this man.

The technique used so often in comedy is the wise servant in control of a family and of a situation, and maid Dorine is on hand here with her down-to-earth common sense attitude to sort out the state of affairs. This exquisitely funny but difficult script is handled with confidence and élan by Patricia Gannon giving full value to every word and gesture, and newcomers Sophie Roberts and Matthew Spencer are fittingly petulant as the bickering young lovers.

Tartuffe himself, when he finally appears, is – in Adrian Schiller’s hands – as deviously wily, scheming and deceitful as you would expect, and it falls to Orgon’s wife, Elmire (Catherine Kanter), to resort to subterfuge to expose his trickery. Too late Orgon finds he has signed away his house and fortune!

Mike Britton’s set is simple and perfect – high black curtaining (depicting the recent austere piety of the household?), three black doors to facilitate the numerous exits and entrances, and a raised centre stage with a circle containing all the action, including a candle-lit dinner setting for the hilarious beginning of the second act.

Superbly performed by all, and with every comic gesture and voice inflection given meaning, but the star of the show must be the brilliant translation – the rhythm and pace of the verse keeping the play moving smartly and entertainingly along, ensuring that attention never flags for an instant.

There is a more serious message beneath the laughter. The play was so subversively attacking the hypocrisy of the Church and of society that it was banned from public performance, reluctantly, by Louis X1V who had to give in to pressure, and in the climatic ending it is the King who rescues Orgon. Being the ‘supreme being’ he knows all – and expects to be worshipped in his turn!

Could it have relevance today? What do you think?

Next touring to Blackpool, Greenwich, Sheffield, Salford and ending in Oxford on 27th May.

This review first appeared in Theatreworld Internet Magazine.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor