Le Tartuffe ou l’Hypocrite

Reviewer's rating

For the 400th birthday of the iconic French playwright Molière, the Comédie Française pays homage to the man who started it all. This season is indeed dedicated to Molière, with a variety of more or less-known plays, from the blockbuster Le Misanthrope (February 2nd – May 22nd, Théâtre Richelieu, directed by Clément Hervieu-Léger) to smaller musical productions like D’où rayonne la nuit (January 27th – March 6th, Studio Théâtre, directed by Yoann Gasiorowski). 

I had the chance to see one of my favourite of his plays: Le Tartuffe, which is known to be one of the most critical pieces written by Molière. It tells the story of an imploding family disturbed by the arrival of Tartuffe, a falsely religious man who seduces the patriarch’s wife and manages to become his only heir. But the version shown at the Comédie Française at the moment is a special one: it is one of the play’s earliest versionsd, a three-act one, before its ending was altered and softened for censorship matters. This version, called Le Tartuffe ou l’Hypocrite, is a more explicit, sharpest one, and was censored after its first representation in Versailles in 1664. To show it for the first time in this theater, nearly 400 years later, is a wonderful homage to the playwright’s sense of irony.

Having Dutch director Ivo Van Hove to direct the play was a bold choice but also made a lot of sense. After collaborating with the troupe on the dark and political The Damned then on the muddy, electrical tragedy Electre/Oreste, Van Hove takes on Molière’s social comedy with ease and infuses it with particular brutality. The sense of violence in the mise-en-scène is strongly suggested by cold, raw overhead lighting, and by a lively musical score composed by the Oscar winner composer Alexandre Desplat, famous for his collaborations with director Wes Anderson among others.

The title part was given to the ever-surprising Christophe Montenez, whose impeccable diction enlightens Molière’s alexandrines. Even though Montenez at first seems surprisingly young for the part, he manages to make a disturbingly cold and perverse Tartuffe, and happens to be perfect for the part. Then, as the passive, naive patriarch Orgon, the brilliant Denis Podalydès gives a perfect interpretation of the grotesque character.  Both of them form a comical and intense pair, that actually outshines the central romantic relationship between Tartuffe and Elmire (Marina Hands). The rest of the cast is great as well and make a formidable ensemble. Loic Corbery and Dominique Blanc, in particular, are very striking in their parts.

The set design, a stripped down stage with mirrors on each side and stairs in the middle, fails to impress, but has the merit of valorizing the actors. and the presence of screens and microphones to amplify the actors’ voices are superfluous and regrettable. Lastly, it seems like Ivo Van Hove has a thing for shocking endings that leave the spectators in awe – take The Damned’s Martin covering his naked body in ashes facing the public, or Electre/Oreste’s surrealistic deus ex machina. In his Tartuffe, the result is way less convincing : the actors appear before us like a painting, half of them appearing as a working class group and the others as a bourgeois family. Without ruining the play, this ending seems a bit superfluous and meaningless.

Résumé en français:

Pour le 400ème anniversaire de Molière, la Comédie Française rend hommage au père de la troupe. En choisissant de présenter Le Tartuffe ou l’Hypocrite, version originelle et non-censurée du Tartuffe que l’on connaît, la troupe, accompagnée par le metteur en scène Ivo Van Hove, célèbre Molière dans toute son irrévérence. Si le couple adultère au centre de la pièce peine à convaincre, c’est la relation entre Orgon et Tartuffe que l’on retiendra dans cette pièce: la paire Denis Podalydès/Christophe Montenez brille, et les deux comédiens infusent une tension froide et une ambiguïté à la pièce. Malgré un décor décevant et quelques facilités de mise-en-scène de la part de Van Hove, la partition d’Alexandre Desplat parvient à mettre en valeur le jeu des comédiens et les alexandrins de Molière.