Tartuffe – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

Writer: Molière

Adaptor: Christopher Hampton

Director: Gérald Garutti

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Even if Brexit is unstoppable, the Entente Cordiale looks set to live on, exemplified by this production of a Molière play, written in 1664, adapted by an Englishman, directed by a Frenchman, performed by French and British actors and spoken in both French and English in roughly even measures.

The production requires sur, sub and side titles, and all seat positions in this three-tiered theatre appear to be covered. French-to-English translations appear in white text, English-to-French in yellow. It takes time to get used to, but it all works fairly well. As Christopher Hampton’s adaptation tells of a French family that has emigrated to Los Angeles when Dad buys a film studio, it is logical that both languages should be in use, but less so that characters should repeatedly switch between them in mid conversation. Of course, logic is never going to play a big part in a play such as this.

As with most plays in which the plot hinges on a character’s gullibility, suspension of disbelief is essential. Here, the gullible one is family head, Orgon (Sebastian Roché) who takes in the vagrant Tartuffe and is taken in by his piety and perceived wisdom. As the play has alternative titles of The Hypocrite and The Imposter, it quickly becomes obvious that Orgon is heading for a fall, notwithstanding warnings from his son Damis (George Blagden) and others in his family. He insists that Tartuffe will marry his daughter Mariane (Olivia Ross) against her wishes and remains oblivious to his lusting after his wife Elmire (Audrey Fleurot).

We wonder whether forced marriage is actually legal in California and, in a more general sense, why Hampton has chosen to transplant the play to there. Brief references could be taken to allude to Hollywood’s current woes, but these are passing and a final scene which openly satirises the current American Presidency comes across as clumsy and obvious. For more than half an hour at the beginning of the play, characters stand in clusters to talk about nothing else but Tartuffe and some of their chat is so turgid that it is hardly worth reading the translations. We have a long wait to see if the titular character himself can possibly live down to all this adverse hype and, when he eventually arrives, we are not disappointed.

Our first sight of Paul Anderson’s Tartuffe is with his arms raised sideways in crucifixion pose, a messianic figure, who is, at once, obsequious and dominating. He speaks (only in English) with the pronounced Southern drawl of a Baptist preacher and sings Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Although similarities with a figure seen at a recent royal event are almost certainly unintended, this interpretation of the character begins to show us why Hampton draws parallels between the court of Louis XIV and Donald Trump’s America. Unsurprisingly, all of the production’s most entertaining scenes coincide with Anderson being on stage.

Andrew D Edwards’ striking set design has the look of a chic gallery for modern art, with what could be a multi-medium Turner Prize exhibit as its centrepiece. It forms part of a production, directed by Gérald Garutti, which has enough imaginative flourishes to keep the audience engaged and which marks a bold attempt to breathe fresh life into a creaking 17th Century classic. Nonetheless, much of this Tartuffe is still tough going.

Runs until 28 July 2018 | Image: Helen Maybanks

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Tough going

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  1. My wife and I both went to see Tartuffe last night and absolutely loved it. We had both (or should I say each!?!) studied the play for A level about 35 years ago and found it on paper heavy going and to see it done so expertly and electricly and credibly (up to the deus ex machina stunt near the end – which is more credible in this version than the original) we finally get it.
    Given the surtitles it is accessible to any speaker of french or english – it was noticeable that far more francophone people were in the audience than normal London theatre and it was a younger audience than standard too which is refreshing.
    Can we have more please – the swap from language to language was odd for the first few minutes but it was easy to get into it and to enjoy it rather than to question it or kick against it!
    More please – a masterpiece which deserves better professional reviews than it has had so far.
    Rufus (& Liz) Ballaster

  2. Totally agree with the previous comment. Huge talent, unfair reviews in London papers. Very enjoyable and well adapted classical play.

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