Popular and well-received by the public when it first showed in 1664, but quickly banned due to the backlash from religious groups for the portrayal of someone outwardly pious but truly a sort of lecherous con artist, Tartuffe was a masterpiece of satire on the sham of religion and its trickster nature. In this new version, it’s a thinly-veiled commentary both on Brexit Britain, and also the widening gap between the rich and pretty much everyone else. In the past, where the play may have ended with Orgon and his family playing the victim, here we leave with an indescribable sense that Tartuffe is a sort of victim, and Orgon’s bourgeoise lifestyle and the allowances that are made for him because of his wealth, were more of a problem that Tartuffe’s deceptive behaviour.
It just shows how transferrable the subject matter is – it really is an incredible thing that a play 350 years old can still feel so incredibly relevant to today’s socio-political issues. From ironic religious hypocrisy and deluding the gullible to the unjust abuse of wealth and power, Molière’s work of art has it all.
Relocated to luxurious modern-day Highgate, in possibly one of the most beautiful and opulent set designs I’ve ever seen, Donnelly’s version deftly shows that the moral issues the play explores are not a thing of the past at all. Perhaps what has made the play such a staple in the world of theatre is the universality of it. Donnelly makes it even more accessible for all audiences by abandoning the original, perhaps more complicated, rhymes in favour of modern-day language to suit the temporal setting. This gives us more of an opportunity to focus on the comedy and incredible physicality of the production, such as Olivia Williams’s Elmire leaping around the room trying to seduce Tartuffe and expose him whilst her husband lies hidden on the sofa. The play has a slow start (still interesting though), and the second scene really takes off, with fantastic performances from all the cast.
The real stand-out performance of course comes from Denis O’Hare, for his skilful portrayal of the enigmatic charlatan Tartuffe, a remarkable balance between charisma and oddity. With an obscure, slightly dodgy Euro-something accent, bizarre polka dot underwear/printed t-shirt outfit ensemble, and vague spiritual ramblings, he somehow manages to weasel his way into the family and dupe the man of the house, Orgon – even turning him against his own relatives with seemingly little effort.
The play snowballs from here, with the rest of the family scrambling to help the deluded Orgon see Tartuffe’s lies and deception. Kitty Archer confidently plays Orgon’s daughter who finds herself being blackmailed into a marriage, Geoffrey Lumb as her socialist street-poet lover Valere, and another of my favourite performers of the night, Kathy Keira Clarke as Dorine, the shrewd housekeeper and close friend of the family, whose description of Tartuffe as an “edible fungal growth” had everyone in stitches (you had to be there – so go!).