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Tartuffe – National Theatre, London

Writer: Molière, adapted by John Donnelly

Director: Blanche McIntyre

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

It seems that Molière’s tale of a conman posing as a man of faith who inveigles his way into a high society family has a resonance with today’s theatre audience. How else could one explain this, the third version in a year of Tartuffe, following Christopher Hampton’s West End production and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s own adaptation.

John Donnelly’s interpretation roots the action in the opulent living room of a Highgate mansion. Orgon (Kevin Doyle), the head of the family, acquired his wealth through nefarious misuse of his insider knowledge of government contracts. But after he falls under the spell of a homeless spiritual guru, the eponymous Tartuffe, the delicate balance that keeps his family intact begins to break down.

Initial signs are not promising in Blanche McIntyre’s National directing debut. Save for a brief appearance in the audience at the start of the show, Denis O’Hare’s Tartuffe is around for the best part of an hour, his actions talked about rather than seen.

This does mean we get to enjoy the company of Oregon’s family all the more, but each character is drawn with such a broad brush that it becomes tough to initially view them as people whose lives the audience is supposed to care about.

There’s a gaudiness to the acting that, while it fits in with Robert Jones’s set, threatens to detract from the genuine comedy Donnelly injects into his retelling. True, many of his lines teeter on the corny, but one can’t help feeling that treating the characters in a less cartoonish manner, to begin with, would highlight the absurdity of their lives.

When Tartuffe does appear, one expects him to stand out from the family in some way – but he is a grotesque from the same mould: one can almost see why Orgon and his mother fall in thrall to him, but it is harder to discern why nobody else does.

Things settle down in Act II, as the charlatan inveigles his way into Orgon’s finances and the family seeks ever more desperate means to expose him. Olivia Williams, underused as Orgon’s wife Elmire in the first act, demonstrates her physical comedy skills in a spirited tussle – actual and mental – with O’Hare.

And it is in the second act where O’Hare’s interpretation of the titular role really comes into focus. The Christianity of Molière’s original is replaced here by a very North London mix of Eastern spiritual appropriation, but Donnelly ensures that Tartuffe’s outlook on life is not without merit. Orgon and his family of grotesques could do with some spiritual component in their lives – but best not from someone who plans to swindle them.

It is the smaller roles that come to dominate the memory. Enti Okoronkwo bounds lemur-like around the set as the excitable Damis, while Geoffrey Lumb’s street poet Valere steals every one of his scenes as the socialist who rejects rhyming as a bourgeois construct, but has a background even more privileged than the self-made Orgon.

By the show’s climax, Donnelly focuses on a moralistic message that is – quite literally – posed to the audience as much as Orgon and his family. But if that message is to land, it needs to be more acutely delivered than it is here.

Runs until 30 April 2019 | Image: Johan Persson

Writer: Molière, adapted by John Donnelly Director: Blanche McIntyre Reviewer: Scott Matthewman It seems that Molière’s tale of a conman posing as a man of faith who inveigles his way into a high society family has a resonance with today’s theatre audience. How else could one explain this, the third version in a year of Tartuffe, following Christopher Hampton’s West End production and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s own adaptation. John Donnelly’s interpretation roots the action in the opulent living room of a Highgate mansion. Orgon (Kevin Doyle), the head of the family, acquired his wealth through nefarious misuse of his…

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Gaudy comedy

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One comment

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    “but each character is drawn with such a broad brush that it becomes tough to initially view them as people whose lives the audience is supposed to care about.
    There’s a gaudiness to the acting that, while it fits in with Robert Jones’s set, threatens to detract from the genuine comedy”

    Very nearly exactly what I thought. Mariane and, fatally, Tartuffe were dreadfully cartoonish and don’t encourage empathy at all. For me O’Hare’s performance pretty much ruled out suspension of disbelief. I know it’s a comedy but you still need to believe that Orgon (and Pernelle) might be fooled by the impostor – and I just couldn’t believe it. The updating isn’t convincing either. The low-tech methods chosen to expose the impostor don’t fit with the digital age where this production locates the action; and the vague, generic description of Orgon’s guilty secrets never really evokes the same sense of seriousness as the 17th century threat of the stake for heretics and the gallows for traitors.

    I disagree about the other performances. Susan Engel’s Pernelle is very fine but I found more to like about the characters played more or less straight (Elmire, Dorine, Cleante) than the overblown Damis and Valere.

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