Perhaps the most famous and celebrated of all French plays, Tartuffe swoops into the Theatre Royal Haymarket this summer. A production that hauls the play from the 17th century and deposits it into the modern day, mixing together French and English dialogue, this is a reinvention of Molière’s classic.
In the verdant hills of Los Angeles, a wealthy tycoon named Orgon opens the doors of his palatial house to the radical evangelist Tartuffe. However as Tartuffe enchants Orgon with his preaching and the two men grow closer, it soon becomes clear that Tartuffe’s intentions are not as pure as his unending religious diatribes would suggest, and he intends to take full advantage of his clueless benefactor. As the house’s great rooms ring with his vociferous religious sermons, the other family members – along with their loyal staff – scuttle away to avoid him at all costs. Imploring Orgon to oust the preacher, they struggle to break through his infatuation and the future of the family is thrown into jeopardy.
There is a lot to like in this adaptation of Tartuffe. The individual performances are strong and the threat from Tartuffe himself is palpable, spreading like an infestation throughout the house. Immediately striking is Claude Perron’s Dorine, representing the story’s pragmatic voice of reason, whose animated delivery is refreshing and her appreciation for comic timing is particularly enjoyable. Elmire, performed beautifully by Audrey Fleurot, exudes a matter-of-fact confidence and her smooth, considered delivery is a welcome reprieve from the otherwise break-neck speed of the dialogue.
The decision to transport this French classic to the glamour of Los Angeles is a little confusing. The glitzy makeovers make each of the characters rather jarring and unlikeable and the servants become somewhat indistinguishable from the wealthy family. As Tartuffe’s false piety and scheming ways are exposed, the story careens towards its conclusion. Settling on a Trump-bashing finale, it becomes increasingly difficult to refrain from rolling one’s eyes. That’s not to say that the themes of façade, deception and self-aggrandisement don’t mirror the current incumbent of the White House but the word ‘bandwagon’ springs to mind.
This bilingual performance is a bold attempt to uphold the tone and nuance of Molière’s original while making the production accessible to a predominantly English-speaking audience. The decision to provide subtitles is of course helpful. However, the whole audience (unless fluent in both French and English) is reading the text for half of the show, instead of watching the actors. This is particularly annoying during scenes spoken for the most part in one language, where suddenly a few lines in the other language are thrown in. The audience is continually on tenterhooks, ready to snap their attention back to the screens at a moment’s notice.
While this adaptation of Tartuffe has a lot to offer, it falls a little flat. The comedy, originally driven by physical intimacy and timing, is sadly sacrificed to make the play more accessible and the tone of the production wavers as the dialogue swings between languages. Some great moments throughout but, for one of the most revered of all French comedies, the laughs are few and far between.
Reviewed by Alex Foott
Photo: Helen Maybanks