Moliere ran into trouble when he first tried to publicly present his comedy Tartuffe. King Louis XIV banned it, and the church vowed to excommunicate all who read, acted or saw it. It was believed that the play professed abominations on Catholicism and highlighted the potential gullibility of blindly following religious visionaries. But it was after all a comedy, so sense prevailed and a few more opened-minded centuries and translations later, Tartuffe is Nash’s latest production.
The play examines how destructive blind faith can be. Orgon’s house is turned upside-down when he invites Tartuffe, a hypocrite and ethereal conman (think Peter Foster meets Gandhi) into his home. Orgon wholeheartedly believes that Tartuffe is an agent of God and promises to do all in his power to keep him happy including giving his daughter’s hand in marriage, and deeds to his properties. Orgon’s faith is much to the chagrin of the rest of the household who, sceptical of Tartuffe, find themselves concocting half-cocked schemes to expose him for the fraud that he is. This, combined with subplots of religion, romance and piety makes up the bulk of the story. A nice twist ties up all loose ends.
Tartuffe lends most of its style to Commedia del’Arte, which is explored partially by directors Drew Mason and Anke Williams. A good use of this technique is in the lovers’ scene in the first act where the idiosyncrasies of the characters are brought to light. However this type of physical melodrama only came in bursts throughout the show and should have been more sustained. Tartuffe‘s script is in rhyming iambic pentameter, which not only makes it harder for the actors but also for the audience to follow. This difficult dialogue is mostly well-handled by the actors, apart from a few irritating sing-song moments which aren’t necessary, even though the script is rhyming.
The role of the infatuated Orgon (Mark Tsang) is capably played despite some sporadic melodramatic bursts. Gillian Denny as his wife, Elmire is convincing and engages in a hilarious scene where she is trying to catch Tartuffe off guard. Cleante (Troy Kippen), Elmire’s brother is suitably emphatic and the terrier-like tenacity of Damis (Brad Turnbull), Orgon’s son is often funny. (Unfortunately I missed a lot of lines from both Kippen and Turnbull due to their often hurried speech.) The show does provide for some shining performances though, coming from the maids Flipote (Annie Gylling) and Dorine (Janet Palmer). Palmer has remarkable clarity of speech and portrays her meddling maid character with a cheekiness and sarcasm which the audience enjoyed. She also was integral in the upkeep of momentum in the first act. Gylling, while not having much opportunity on stage obviously relishes her role and engages in some extremely funny movement sequences the epitome of the del’Arte form. The ensemble is completed with Orgon’s daughter, Mariane (Helen Moore), Mariane’s lover, Valere (Andrew Moore) and Orgon’s mother Mme Pernelle (Diana Richardson).
James Anderson as the title role acts a convincing religious nobody. However, I would have liked to have seen more of the fake conman-like underbelly of his character shine through, particularly when Orgon was not around, so that the audience could be convinced of his duplicity.
The cast seem to work well together on stage. However some sequences appear hurried, resulting in difficulty understanding the words. A more focus-based approach needs to be applied to these ensemble scenes so that the dialogue is clarified while eliminating much of the distracting stage noise created from all the running around.
The simple living room unit set is suitable for the present day with clever use of hanging pictures. Lighting and costume design is also appropriate.
Despite the few niggles, Tartuffe is generally an enjoyable night out. If you’re feeling particularly sharp-minded and if comedy is up your alley, you’d better get into Tartuffe before it’s banned…. again.