Molière this!: Bell Shakespeare’s Tartuffe

Following in the wake of the tiresome and convoluted adaptation/new version vs. new plays-and-textual fidelity debate (most of last year), comes another of Justin Fleming’s versions of one of Molière’s plays. Last seen in Bell Shakespeare’s The School for Wives in 2012, Fleming’s skill lies not just in translating Molière’s (French) rhymes into modern Australian ones, but in the panache, flair, wit and verve with which he carries it all off. In Fleming’s Tartuffe, currently playing at the Opera House’s Drama Theatre, director Peter Evans summons up every inch of baroque stateliness inherent in Molière-via-Fleming’s script, and runs with it, creating a sugary confection which simply must be seen to be believed.

Written in 1664 and censored by King Louis XIV almost immediately, Tartuffe underwent several revisions by Molière until premiering in its final form in 1669. The story of a rich man, Orgon, who has sheltered, fed, clothed and helped a con-artist whilst seeking spiritual fulfilment. The con-artist, Tartuffe, is a “slimy hypocrite of the highest order,” and Orgon’s family and household can all see this. Everyone except Orgon, it seems. Tartuffe exploits Orgon’s unwavering faith and causes mayhem wherever he goes, and eventually Orgon’s family decide to take measures into their own hands and expose Tartuffe. But, as in all good farces, of which Molière is one of the most highy-skilled creators, it will take something truly inspired to catch this two-faced Janus.
Anna Cordingley’s set is a sumptuous mix of fading baroque splendour and mid-renovation grunge. An oversized Chesterfield sofa, a large wardrobe, and a precariously-balanced grandfather clock are the main components of the set, a once-opulent mansion which has been eaten from the inside-out by Tartuffe and his vicious con. Cordingley’s costumes are as sharp and elegant as anything the baroque tailors and seamstresses could conjure, and her costume for Mariane seems straight out of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, a pastel confection festooned with flowers and many layers of tulle and silk petticoats. Paul Jackson’s lighting perfectly complements Cordingley’s designs with bright colours, clarity and cleanness, and doesn’t detract from the action. Kelly Ryall’s music – as audacious now as Louis Clark’s Hooked On series was with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1980s – mashes Bach, Pachelbel and Lully with a synthesised Moog-like sound and a disco-punk aesthetic to perfectly capture the post-postmodern baroque sensibility which pervades (invades?) this production.
If you’re familiar with Peter Evans’ work for Bell Shakespeare over the past three years (or if you’ve followed this blog at all), you’ll know that he likes to employ Meyerhold’s system of biomechanics in his stagings. Here, though, the conceit is curiously (thankfully) missing, a decision which is more than welcome and frees up the rhythm and metre of the verse and action, and allows the actors to move more freely across the space, to fully embrace the fast and farcical potential of Molière-via-Fleming’s script. Evans’ direction is also enormously playful, exploiting the capacity of every situation and moment for comedic gold, and there are many moments to love here; my only quibble would be that some scenes seem to drag on for too long, situations played out perhaps longer than they need to be, but when the rhymes are as clever, subtle and outright mischievous as Fleming’s, I don’t think it really matters that much. In a tremendously strong production, the only misstep is the large neon Facebook-like sign which descends at the beginning of the second half. Proclaiming “Jesus wants to be Your friend,” it distracts from the vibrant action in front of it; while I can understand what it was trying to say – just as Molière himself was at pains in 1669 to point out that his target wasn’t religion itself but rather religious usurpation, using religion to your own end – it seems to be as unsubtle as a brick wall in an otherwise deliciously satirical and biting production.
Evans’ cast are all tremendous, each and every one of them at the top of their game and having an absolute ball. Sean O’Shea’s Orgon is resplendent in a blue-and-gold brocade coat, a very Blackadder-ish type of fellow and a bit of a sycophant. While Leon Ford’s Tartuffe doesn’t appear until the scene before interval (Act Three), his appearance in a maroon velvet suit and brocade waistcoat ensures he is seen as the smoothest of smooth-operators and quickly charms and beguiles Orgon with his words and seemingly-pious deeds; his comeuppance at the play’s conclusion is spectacularly ingenious (hoisted, as he is, by his own petard), though that is not before he and Orgon’s wife Elmire share an outrageous double-entendre-filled scene in her chamber. Helen Dallimore’s Elmire is as cunning as she is flummoxed by Orgon’s actions, and her comic timing is excellent. Robert Jago’s Cléante is a no-nonsense figure, to the point and holds no quibbles in speaking his mind; Charlie Garber’s Damis seems to be cut from the same cloth, albeit with more of a temper and a taste for seeing Tartuffe bought to justice sooner rather than later, and we come to admire both their facilities for honesty in the face of such blatant cunning. Kate Mulvany’s Dorine, the family’s maid, is loud-mouthed and crude but never outstays her welcome, providing some wonderful moments of searing honesty and scintillating nerve early on in the piece, as well as being the mastermind behind Tartuffe’s unmasking. Jennifer Hagan’s Madame Pernelle, clothed in a magnificent gold brocade dress, will not hear a bad word said against Tartuffe, and opens the play with a stately grace and an aloofness seemingly detached from reality. As Mariane, Geraldine Hakewill comes close to stealing the show, if that is at all possible from such a strong ensemble. Combining a girlish silliness and emotional vulnerability with a (hidden) feisty streak which earns her Dorine’s respect, she quickly wins over our hearts as well as that of her original fiancée, Valère. Tom Hobbs’ Valère, though rarely seen, is every bit the match for Hakewill’s Mariane, and their scenes together are hilarious, love-struck that they are. Hobbs has an athletic grace and timing which is perfect, just as Hakewill’s skittishness is endearing; the moment Valère renounces his love for Mariane and approaches a member of the audience is hilarious, not least for the glare which Hakewill fixes on the poor hapless person; their reunion at the end, whilst predictable as anything, still brings a stupid big giddy smile to your face. Russell Smith as Monsieur Loyal, the bailiff’s messenger, is coarse and genial, a kind of sleazy businessman-cum-lawyer who wouldn’t seem out of place in parliament or on a local council. Scott Witt also steals the show as the clueless servant, tottering around with a lobotomised grin on his face, crashing into furniture, tripping over his own feet, changing scenes with a serene stupidity that, come the play’s conclusion and deus ex machina moment, you would be hardpressed to believe that his Figure in Judgement (the aptly-titled Ghost of Poetic Justice) is the same actor; resplendent in silver doublet, hose and ruff, with a shocking orange wig and beard, not only does he deliver the final pronouncement upon Tartuffe, but he manages to out-Molière Molière (via Fleming’s ingenuity) in a moment of divine clarity, wit and joy. It might diffuse the cynicism which characterises all of Molière’s work, but it brings a kind of Shakespearean warmth and humanity to the proceedings and you know that all is right as right can be – the cat has mewed, and the dog has had his day.
I don’t think I have seen a Molière play that is this audacious or vibrant, this much fun, and it is as much due to director Peter Evans as it is to Justin Fleming (and, by extension, Molière himself). Where critic Phyllis Hartnoll believed that Molière’s ostensible Frenchness rendered him untranslatable into any other language (she believed “the spirit [had] evaporated” in the process), Evans, Fleming, Cordingley and the eleven-strong cast demonstrate that Tartuffe is well and truly alive today, a veritable wolf in sheep’s clothing, and ensure that you leave the theatre giddy-drunk on words, rhyme, laughter and post-postmodern baroque opulence, unable to walk straight, let alone wipe the grin off your face. If there is another production this year which is as outrageously and defiantly vibrant as this, it will be a lucky happenstance indeed.
Definitely recommended.

Theatre playlist: 44. Toccata and Fugue in D minor [Edit], Ekseption

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