In the era of Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan and Brexit, satire and quasi-political ridicule are the order of the day. But can satire cut it when comedy writes itself?
Moliere’s Tartuffe is the number one most frequently performed play in France. With its themes of impostership, decadence, male entitlement, egotism and more, it more or less applies to any time or place. As such, it seems to be ‘updated’ or reinterpreted each time: The RSC relocated from 17th century Paris to 21st century Birmingham and staged the classic political farce on religion and bullshit. John Donnelly’s reimagining sends us to Highgate on a hilarious rundown of feminism, millennials, men, women, sex, poverty, government fraud, and much more. The script piles in on topical political satire, and yet it all feels a little, well, ‘safe’.
We open on the morning after a hectic party thrown by Orgon’s children, and a discussion of the blight that the imposter, Tartuffe (Denis O’Hare), has brought on their house. Pernelle (Susan Engel) throws the doors open and tells them their all wrong; so begins a nonstop, doors opening and closing, plot-twisting, people appearing and disappearing farce on the sheltered life on the elites, and the fragility it exhibits when given a little shaking.
The first half seems to be occupied by two central questions: what is power, and is power rational? Orgon (Kevin Doyle) and Cleante (Hari Dhillon) have a long, slightly artificial, debate about the conflict between being rational and being decisive. This was a debate of growing significance at the time of Moliere, as the tension between rationalism and empiricism was beginning to form. Doyle, perhaps more so than Dhillon- who seems to deliver all his lines as if in a 90s American sitcom retains the kick of interest in this debate, as he portrays his lack of rationality when influenced by Tartuffe. He thoughtlessly expells his entire family from his house when they disagree with his half-baked plans. Donnelly skilfully twists Moliere’s interest in contemporary philosophy into more contemporary interest in male entitlement and privilege.
But in this second, this all falls apart. This is, of course, deliberate: it is a farce, after all. But moderately interesting, though by no means novel, ideas slide away to reveal a simple comic pastiche of modern society. Jokes are on point, delivered with rapidity and gusto. Some are better at comedy than others, with Geoffrey Lamb, as Valere, opting to shout all his lines, rather than deliver any vocal nuance. And even so, all the comedy is so very middle of the road. Jokes tinged with commentary on Brexit, examinations of impostor syndrome and outsider status, laughing at men who are entitled to everything.
Perhaps a more ambitious writer might have taken things a step further and dialled down the comedy in favour of a more slighted attack on the Establishment, rather than finding the comfortable way.
Review by Thomas Froy
A ferocious new version of Molière’s comic masterpiece, Tartuffe, by John Donnelly, directed by Blanche McIntyre will open in February in the Lyttelton Theatre. Denis O’Hare makes his NT debut as Tartuffe, and is joined by Kevin Doyle as Orgon and Olivia Williams as Elmire.
Orgon is the man who has everything: money, power, a beautiful home and family. But lately he’s been questioning the point of it all. When he invites the irresistible Tartuffe into his seemingly perfect household, he unleashes a whirlwind of deception and seduction that threatens everything. With Orgon under Tartuffe’s spell, can his family outwit this charismatic trickster? Are Tartuffe’s wild claims truth or fiction? This mysterious stranger may not be quite the villain he appears. A scalpel-sharp comedy looking at the lengths we go to find meaning – and what happens when we find chaos instead.
The cast also includes Kitty Archer, Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea, Fayez Bakhsh, Kathy Kiera Clarke, Hari Dhillon, Matthew Duckett, Susan Engel, Henry Everett, Will Kelly, Geoffrey Lumb, Penelope McGhie, Kevin Murphy, Enyi Okoronkwo and Roisin Rae. With set and costume design by Robert Jones, lighting design by Oliver Fenwick and music and sound design by Ben and Max Ringham.
In a new version by John Donnelly