Tartuffe by Molière, adapted by John Donnelly – National Theatre: Lyttleton
John Donnelly’s adaptation of Tartuffe locates the action in an obscenely large house, dripping with 2010s opulence in the form of outsized furnishing and a vast, golden statue of David. As a symbol of self-regarding excess, David Jones’ set could hardly be clearer and sets the tone for a production that updates Molière to show how the irresistible story of an imposter can strip our pretensions bare, as it has many others before.
A strong cast plays a collection of Molière’s types, characters updated to be familiar to us. Mariane is Orgon’s spoiled daughter, as charming as she is immature. Played by Kitty Archer she is very funny, as is her ‘street poet’ boyfriend who exists simply to be the butt of multiple jokes about his self-regard and terrible poetry. The caricatures hit home: they are too close for comfort to their real-life equivalents, coming soon to a London neighbourhood near you. However, Mariane is also capable, like all four women in the play, of changing and finds the self-awareness to pull herself out of her dependency on her father. Meanwhile Olivia Williams, as Orgon’s wife Elmire, combines deep reserves of frustration over her husband’s obsession with Tartuffe with a surprising, very entertaining talent for physical comedy. Susan Engel, as the mother Pernille steals both the start and the end of the show as the shameless matriarch, embarking on a stick-banging lecture at the drop of a hat. Kathy Kiera Clarke’s housekeeper Dorine is smart and in charge, but fated by her position as a servant to lose out
The play is ostensibly about the deluded Orgon and the deluder Tartuffe but, oddly, in this production their roles are the least convincing. This is partly due to the adaptation, which pitches Tartuffe as a complete charlatan – in this version a yoga teacher, naturally – lacking even basic credibility. Only a complete fool could fall for his improvised pseudo-spiritualism, and that fool is Orgon. It is therefore hard to believe that Kevin Doyle’s Orgon, a manically upright Angus Deayton character, could ever have been a politically influential figure, which turns out to be crucial to the play. Doyle has a nice line in physical comedy too, but the person he was before he lost his senses is lacking. He is, however, neatly representative of our conspiracy theory driven times, becoming more desperate to believe in Tartuffe, the more his is confronted with proof he is a fraud. Denis O’Hare’s man-bunned Tartuffe gets the intense sincerity of the true charlatan spot on, but adopts an indefinable ‘foreign’ accent throughout which he never drops, which tends to make his character seem like nothing but performance.
In the end, the set weighs the production down. Most scenes involve two or three characters, who tend to disappear among the sofa cushions and parquet expanses, stripping away any intimacy. Although Blanche McIntyre works hard to populate the space, this is not a play full of spectacle. The final scene where Tartuffe becomes representative of the dispossessed, street sleepers filling the stage as he threatens retribution on the self-regarding rich, is memorable but also conceptually dubious, given that we know nothing he says should be taken seriously. An intriguing and inventive cast makes this an evening that, if not a complete success, is worth watching for its best performances.