John Donnelly’s contemporary revision of Moliere’s classic comedy Tartuffe will strike an immediate chord with anyone who’s ever witnessed the undignified spectacle of a friend fawning unquestioning adulation for a ‘gentle and loving’ pet cat, whilst simultaneously scrubbing excrement from the back of a claw-shredded settee. In this version, 17th century Paris is replaced by present-day Highgate, where Orgon and his family of self-indulgent socialites live a dysfunctional life of luxury surrounded by the gaudy trappings of his (ill-gotten) wealth. Feeling bereft of purpose, and desperately seeking to re-establish traditional values in the face of perceived social degeneration, Orgon has fallen hopelessly for his live-in spiritual guru – the mononymous Tartuffe; a shameless philandering charlatan steadily milking Orgon for all he’s worth.
Moliere’s original play first premiered in 1664 in Versailles to an audience including the young French king, Louis XIV. Its satirical swipes at religious hypocrisy in an environment of increasing politico-religious tension and social revolution were enough to see public performances of it banned for five years. It seems Tartuffe’s original characterisation – as a sort of lecherous cleric – did not earn the play much favour from church authorities, who threatened to excommunicate anyone who performed, read, or even heard the play being read in private. And now, in 2019, John Donnelly has redirected Tartuffe’s satirical guns at the self-absorbed ideologies that dominate the modern era.
Denis O’Hare’s Tartuffe functions much like a Sacha Baron Cohen character in this production. He is an outrageous self-centred caricature who spouts spurious pseudo-spiritual counselling in an unplaceable European accent; often in his pants and whilst flexing into suggestive yoga positions. But it is his family’s attempts to break Tartuffe’s spell over Orgon (Kevin Doyle), by outing him as a fraud, that exposes the inherent hypocrisy of their lives. From virtue-signalling male ‘feminists’, to public-school socialist artisans, Donnelly’s script is at its best when confronting the delusions of unchallenged privilege.
There is also a distinctly current feel to Orgon’s obsession with Tartuffe. His charisma and the simplicity of his ‘back to basics’ antidote to the menace of social progression (or, the unfamiliar) chimes with the appeal of populist personalities worldwide. Like them, Tartuffe offers Orgon a sense of solace that is unburdened by issues of fact and reason (“He is not interested in proof, he feels it”, his family complain). The merits of his position aside, the play hints towards the lure of fundamentalist extremism in the pursuance of meaning; and the pervasiveness of controlling behaviours in the guise of protection.
John Donnelly’s Tartuffe manages the weight of its themes with a pleasingly accessible touch, aided by a funny script and excellent performances from the cast. Despite his limited stage time, Geoffrey Lumb is superb as the insufferable revolutionary poet, Valere. Similarly, Denis O’Hare measures the title-character with an endearing blend of wit and slapstick, drawing much affection for one of theatre’s most infamous irritants. Meanwhile, Kathy Kiera Clarke sturdily counters the throb of pompous affectations as the cynical house-maid, Dorine. Director Blanche McIntyre finds a lot of comedic mileage in Robert Jones’ grandiose set.
Tartuffe is an intensely enjoyable comedy that heaps heavy scorn on the cognitive dissonance of privilege. Plus, who can resist an opportunity to hear the sound of a National Theatre audience gaily laughing at its own middle-class guilt?