When Tartuffe was first performed in 1664 it created the greatest scandal of writer, Molière’s career and is now considered one of the greatest, classical theatre roles. The name “Tartuffe” is often synonymous with “The imposter” or “The hypocrite” because the play’s lead character is the physical embodiment of these traits despite his attempts at feigning religious virtue and piety.
Bell Shakespeare is the latest theatre troupe to adapt the play, using Justin Fleming’s translation of Molière’s original work. The AU Review sat down with actress, Helen Dallimore who stars as the wife of Orgon (a foolish man who is blinded by his admiration for the leading gent) to learn more about this devilish comedy.
Could you briefly describe Tartuffe for us?
Tartuffe is a confidence trickster who convinces a vulnerable, gullible man (Orgon) that he is a man of faith and virtue. All the while, however, he is undermining him in every conceivable way – ripping him off, trying to seduce his wife and turning his family against each other. It’s a comedy, obviously.
What prompted you to audition for Tartuffe?
It’s a wonderful play, and an hilarious adaptation by Justin Fleming, plus the chance to be directed by Peter Evans – we were at NIDA together and this is the first time we’ve worked together since graduating 20 years ago.
What attracted you to the role of Elmire? How did you prepare for the role?
Elmire’s a surprise package. Molière could so easily have written her as simply a trophy wife, but she is assertive, clever and streetwise, with a very strong moral compass. She came to me quite slowly in rehearsal, because the text is so dense and the status shifts so rapid that the character only started to emerge once I was on top of the dialogue and the moves. The costume and wig helped enormously too.
4. Tartuffe is considered a 17th century classic. How will your adaption differ from earlier versions? Are you consciously trying to put a modern or Australian spin on this play?
This clever version by Justin Fleming absolutely contemporises the play. While not specifying Australia, the fact that it has been written to be spoken in our own accents make the jokes so accessible. It’s such a rare thrill to speak modern Australian verse.
In some of the press for the play it describes how we as people like to see hypocrites taking a tumble. Do you think this is particularly resonant with Australian audiences who like to cut down tall poppies?
The tall poppy syndrome is such a baffling aspect of Australian culture. It’s almost as if there is an endowed hypocrisy on those who achieve success. As though they haven’t really worked for it or deserve it. It’s a real anomaly in our, otherwise genial, collective personality. Tartuffe is a genuine hypocrite and villain – although Leon Ford is very charming, so some of our audience may have mixed feelings about him not winning in the end. If that’s what happens. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.
In Tartuffe Molière questions when it is okay to lie and whether the end justifies the means. What do you think are the most important themes or take home messages from this play?
My character, Elmire, is a very moral person, but also believes that causing a fuss about someone’s bad behaviour isn’t always the best way, sometimes it’s best just to deal with things quietly. Honesty needs to be combined with common sense. Apart from Tartuffe, who is a sociopath, the other characters are gently flawed. They’re all good people but they have issues of anger management, solipsism, gullibility and childishness. Common sense does not prevail. Which is great for comedy.
Molière wanted to expose religious hypocrisy with Tartuffe. That Christianity often strays far away from its core values. Something I’m glad they’ve sorted out since those days. Phew!
Why do you think audiences should come and see Tartuffe?
Because it’s hilariously funny. And how often do you get to see a play in contemporary Australian verse?
Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers of The AU Review about Tartuffe?
There is a fabulous plot twist at the end of the play, where a certain celebrity makes a surprise appearance. The only clue I’m giving is that he and John Bell are no strangers.
Originally published on 31 July 2014 at the following website: http://www.theaureview.com/arts/interviews/actress-helen-dallimore-on-her-part-in-bell-shakespeares-adaptation-of-molieres-tartuffe
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