Tartuffe is an entertaining adaptation of Molière’s original satire on religion. In John Donnelly’s version, the criticism of religious hypocrisy is more muted, placing a greater emphasis on Orgon’s bourgeois guilt and his attempts to atone for his previous money laundering exploits.
Tartuffe is introduced to us as an imposter in the audience – a latecomer who causes a disturbance before the play has even started. As is relayed to us post facto, Orgon comes across Tartuffe, a bogus guru figure, and falls hand-over-fist for his ploy, convinced that Tartuffe’s teachings will help him live as a better person. He brings Tartuffe into the family home, of which Orgon acts as a weak, worried, (and compensatingly ruthless) patriarch. In a turning point of the play, he decides that, having already exiled one child, his daughter Mariane will marry Tartuffe, or he will banish her from the household. The rest of the family meanwhile, seeing right through Tartuffe, decide to hatch a plot to have Orgon’s wife, Elmire, seduce him while Orgon listens in to expose the ‘imposter’ for who he really is.
The set is a wonderful picture of kitschy excess – a giant gold statue of Michelangelo’s David in one corner, a golden orb hanging from the ceiling with spines coming out of it with lights on the ends, a marble fireplace and, naturally, an ornate gold leaf mirror placed above it. A pop-arty portrait of Christ hangs in the background, which subtly changes colour throughout the show, alluding to Orgon’s showy and superficial adoption of religion.
The acting is wonderfully eccentric to match, creating brilliantly vivid characters. Denis O’Hare as Tartuffe and Kevin Doyle as Orgon stand out in particular – the confident idiosyncrasies and exaggerated Spanish accent which O’Hare lends to Tartuffe contrasting brilliantly with the dithering middle-class britishness of Doyle’s Orgon.
Yet despite the comic amusement of Donnelly’s adaptation, the big laughs came not as often from satiric moments, but from flashes of comfortable and slightly obvious humour. In updating the script, there are quite a few referential jokes added which worked in bringing out the stereotypically middle-classedness of the characters, but were nonetheless slightly tired and overdone, for example, ‘I’ve seen worse scraps in the produce aisles of Waitrose’.
This was, however, effective in starkly contrasting with the ending, in which Tartuffe, having convinced Orgon to sign over his house’s lease, is arrested and beaten by the police until Tartuffe renounces his claim to the house. The Prime Minister meanwhile, is said to have forgiven Orgon for his underhand activities in profiting from the unspecified war. In the final moments when the script reverts to Moliere’s rhyming couplet structure, Tartuffe bitterly considers society’s double-standards, resentfully parroting that ‘for the protection of our nation, we must never get ideas above our station’. This turn was jarring and effective – forcing you to reconsider the majority of the characters in the play as villains, not just Tartuffe, the eponymous ‘imposter’.
- By Molière, adapted by John Donnelly
- Directed by Blanche McIntyre
- Cast includes: Denis O'Hare, Kevin Doyle, Olivia Williams and Kathy Kiera Clarke
- National Theatre
- Until 30th April 2019
- Time: 19:30. Matinees: Wednesdays and Saturdays at 14:15.