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by Molière, in a new version by John Donnelly
Lyttelton Theatre, NT
Reviewed by Peter Lawler
Buy Tickets: to April 30
A brutally challenging play about religious hypocrisy and the callous frivolousness of the chattering classes, Molière’s Tartuffe was both poignant and controversial in 1660s France during the playwright’s long struggle to get it performed without getting shut down or banned. Through a bracingly courageous approach, John Donnelly’s reworking of the play manages to deliver something just as if not more brutally challenging and just as poignant in 2019.
In this interpretation of Donnelly’s, the eponymous hero is a new-agey guru — ‘Namaste, friend’ is his customary greeting — who picks and chooses a composite medley of beliefs that help Orgon, his patron to make sense of the world. Inveigled like a wedge between the wealthy Orgon — played by Kevin Doyle, who masters the depth needed to capture man of means flailing and simpering through a mid-life crisis — and his family, Tartuffe assumes an air of authority in the household mansion, frustrating and irritating all those around him, played with butter-wouldn’t-melt innocence and razor sharp charisma by Denis O’Hare. So riveting is his comic presence on stage and so side splitting is his delivery and so effortless his timing that as an audience we hardly notice until it’s too late that, likeable charlatan though he is, he fires at us some difficult and complicated problems to ponder with our healthy dose of middle class complacency (‘so you think that wealth should be distributed by accident of birth?’).
The interplay between O’Hare and his co-stars sizzles with wit and comedic energy, particularly during a seduction scene with Orgon’s wife, Elmire, played with utterly commanding brilliance by Olivia Williams. Her confidence in her unwillingness to suffer the fools around her and her devastatingly incisive delivery is simply mesmerising and leaves the male characters around her bobbing in her wake. She’s the perfect antidote to her husband’s limp, naïve, gullibility and the perfect challenge to lazy patriarchal assumptions, both in Molière’s time and now.
And the performances really are the strength of this satirical wonder. Hari Dhillon’s drippingly acerbic delivery as Elmire’s brother and Orgon’s cynical best friend Cleante, who slowly turns, if not believer, at least skeptical questioner of the rightness of his own, and in turn everyone else’s assumptions about the eccentric titular character. His psychological journey is subtle and engaging, morphing into a voice of conscience that cannot be ignored. Geoffrey Lamb a fantastic fireball of youthful, misfiring, misdirected, exuberant zealotry as Valere (Orgon’s daughter Marianne’s boyfriend) coming to the rescue to save the family from certain wealth redistribution and freestyle pro-proletarian poetry and jumping around stage like a Bernie bro/Corbynite gone mad.
But what will stay with you, is the brave counter-textual reading that Donnelly gives us of this social satire that, without giving too much away, does force you to come to face some uncomfortable truths, to wonder whether there isn’t something a little sinister and a little brutal about our laughter and to question the brutality of society itself.
Find out more about the Kansas City born, Michigan raised and Parisian resident in our interview with Tartuffe star Denis O'Hare