One of the many wonderful and surprising things about going to see a Molière play is the continuing relevance of his themes and his humour. We can all of us recognise the Hypochondriac, the Misanthropist and the Miser, and can laugh just as heartily as any 17th century audience at their pretensions, their schemes, and their ultimate downfall.
Tartuffe, The Imposter, is no exception. The religious element may no longer have the impact that it once had, but we all know someone who pretends to be a far better person that they really are, and secretly long for them to be found out. Watching a comedy where one such person is finally unmasked and disgraced should therefore be a sheer delight. Sadly not in this case.
The script of course is a gem. It has been sensibly and delicately cut by Sarah Pitard, who clearly understands and values the beauty of the text; unfortunately the same cannot be said for the majority of the cast. Many of them seemed ill at ease with and even occasionally unsure of their lines, which made for tense and uncomfortable viewing. The florid, lengthy sentences were tripped over hesitantly, with strange, misplaced emphases and pauses, and even the body language seemed awkward and unsure. Notable exceptions included Katherine Rodden as Dorine, the cheerful, vulgar, busybody maid, and general Jiminy Cricket to the rest of the family. Her comic presence and likeable character hauled this play up by the scruff of its neck and dragged it inexorably through to the end. She was assisted in this by Phoebe Batteson-Brown as the daughter Mariane, who was equally convincing in both comic and tragic mode. Oliver Yellop as her brother Damis showed great potential, and certainly made the most of his limited role. Jeremy Gagan was erratic in the title role, although he did have mesmerizing eyebrows, and knew how to use them.
The staging was attractive and worked well, but why transpose the story to a 1920s cabaret at all? The location was only briefly in focus at the beginning and at the end, and seemed to have no real relevance, and the characters became even less believable in that setting.
Ultimately this is a play which seems to have been plagued with difficulties. A play with a producer who is located abroad and hasn’t actually met all of the cast members and a director who is brought in at the last minute is going to struggle, at least at first. The director Cat Robey is very talented, and I hope that throughout the run she will be able to pull the play together, give it more fluidity and cohesion and really encourage the cast to explore the wonderful comedy. There is definitely potential there.
Review by Genni Trickett
Tartuffe runs until 27th April 2013 at The Canal Café Theatre
12th April 2013