Tartuffe is a 17th century classic and a visceral theatrical experience. The play was originally written by Molière and was received with scandal as he satirised and poked fun at religion, human vices and the other follies that people possess. The current adaptation by the Bell Shakespeare company features a script by Justin Flemming and is a wry, clever and funny night out that will have you simultaneously laughing and slapping your foreheads from the seats.
The story revolves around the show’s namesake, played by Leon Ford. Tartuffe is an imposter, hypocrite, crook and charlatan. But despite these horrid traits, he conducts himself in such a way as to appear the picture of piety. The audience, however, can see through this and that it is all a part of a sanctimonious act.
Orgon (Shane O’Shea) was once considered the master of the house but now he is rendered a foolish and gullible old man. He takes in Tartuffe and dots over the fraud, indulging the hustler’s every whim and sticking up for him on all occasions (even if this means taking sides against his own wife and children). It is most telling that Orgon is forced to see Tartuffe’s true colours by his level-headed wife, Elmire (Helen Dallimore) who stages a trap. Orgon almost seems surprised when he learns the truth and declares, “I gave a wolf sheep’s clothing and that sheep pulled the wool over my eyes”.
Molière’s original work was written in French and made up entirely of rhyming couplets. In Fleming’s contemporary treatment, he remains true to this aspect of the story by allowing some parts to rhyme, while at other moments the dialogue is delivered in a less structured or constrained format. This actually keeps things interesting, by sharply moving the pace along and ensuring that the energy is high. This adaptation is also an engaging rendering for Australian audiences as some local slang and modern references have been added for good measure.
The set is a sparse one with the most obvious elements being a clock (where Orgon’s son (Charlie Garber) learns of Tartuffe’s wicked ways) and a lounge, where in one of the most telling scenes Orgon delivers some heartbreaking news to his daughter, Mariane (Geraldine Hakewill). Orgon has decided that she will not marry her true love, Valère (Robert Jago) but instead be betrothed to Tartuffe. There is also a large cabinet which is used for everything from storage to pathways to other rooms and realms. The costumes meanwhile, are mostly decadent and strike the right balance between the 17th century setting and today.
The actors all put in solid performances but it is the sharp-tongued maid, Dorine (Kate Mulvany) who stands out for her delivery and comedic timing. Dorine is the clever voice of reason who is prepared to speak her mind. A special mention should also go out to Dallimore who comes into her own during the second act and Jennifer Hagan who as the family matriarch, Madame Parnelle, wins the audience over in the opening scene with her caustic tongue.
Tartuffe is a funny play that celebrates the human idiot and warns us against worshipping strangers and granting complete trust at a whim. The story remains fresh to this day, as can be seen by the fact that the audience often shouted and laughed at Orgon as he succumbed further and further to his own gullibility and stupidity. Tartuffe is ultimately an electric play that is scathing in its views of human nature and religion and is a hilarious and colourful romp through society’s strangest and most extreme characters.
All photos by Lisa Tomasetti.
Originally published on 1 August 2014 at the following website: http://www.theaureview.com/arts/reviews/tartuffe-sydney-opera-house-performances-until-august-23
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