Molière’s Tartuffe re-imagined, National Theatre, London:
John Donnelly’s new version of Tartuffe, Molière’s 1664 comedy, showing now at the Lyttelton, is a contemporary morality tale, stripping away the hypocrisy of both the political left and the right, attacking neo-liberalism as much as the radical pretensions of contemporary art and taking a pop at pretty much anyone who’s going to be in a National Theatre audience.
Set in a fantasy present day in the drawing room of a Highgate mansion, Tartuffe opens in the aftermath of a party held by a wealthy but louche family headed up by Orgon, an oligarch on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Played by Kevin Doyle in an endearingly hysterical performance, Orgon has been a loyal lieutenant to the monarch of a recently formed Nation State making his wealth from a series of shady deals. The opening is all a bit Paolo Sorrentinoesque as Orgon’s deluded mother Pernelle, in a delightfully waspish cameo by Susan Engel, criticises her extended family and especially Orgon’s new wife Elmire for their moral deficiencies in a room dominated by a huge, gilded, rotating statue of David and a glowing picture of Saint Sebastian. However Pernelle only has good words to say about Tartuffe, Orgon’s spiritual advisor, whom she claims will bring a return to moral rectitude to the family.
Denis O’Hare plays Tartuffe as a homeless new age guru who has hit paydirt in Orgon, his first real disciple, who can see no ill in the drunken, lecherous behaviour of his hygienically-challenged friend. Brought into the family house Tartuffe manipulates the gullible Orgon with cleverly targeted homilies into handing over his assets as well as turning the hapless paterfamilias against his family. This leads to the expulsion of his son Damis, an enthusiastically naive Enyi Okoronkwo, and the proposed marriage to the odious Tartuffe of his idealistic and rather silly young daughter Mariane.
Kitty Archer brings a delightful self-knowing quality to her portrayal of Mariane and the scenes with her posh socialist street poet boyfriend Valère, in a barnstorming performance by Geoffrey Lumb, are touching as they uncover the genuine emotion behind their adolescent posturing.
A plot is hatched by Kathy Kiera Clarke’s scheming housekeeper Dorine and Orgon’s wife Elmire to unmask Tartuffe, leading to a scene of physical comedy worthy of a Feydeau farce. In a slightly clunky ending delivered in Shakespearean rhyming couplets Orgon’s loyalty to the monarch is repaid in full. All his misdemeanours are forgiven with a policeman arresting the hapless Tartuffe and explaining that redistribution of wealth is simply not acceptable under the present regime.
I really enjoyed this production of Tartuffe at the National. Sometimes the contemporary political references felt a bit clunky but Blanche McIntyre’s energetic production and the joie de vivre of this excellent cast sweep the audience along in a hilarious maelstrom of hypocrisy and liberal guilt.
Last performance Tuesday 30 April 2019, tickets from £15
Also showing at The National Theatre is Stephen Sondheim’s Follies – check our review
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