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By Molière. Directed by Gérald Garutti. Translated by Christopher Hampton.
Theatre Royal Haymarket, Haymarket, London SW1Y 4HT
Reviewed by Michael Burland
An Anglo-French production of a 17th Century French masterpiece, written by Molière, directed by Gérald Garutti, translated by adapter extraordinaire Christopher Hampton and acted by a bilingual, Anglo-French cast. What could possibly go wrong?
A fair amount, as it turns out. The audience soon gets used to switching focus from the actors' faces to the many sur-title (and sub- and side-) boxes when their natural language is not being employed. But switching between the two tongues was trickier for some of the cast, damaging their flow. Perhaps it would be better for the French actors to speak French, and the Brits English.
The plot sees Rasputin-like 'holy man' Tartuffe (Paul Anderson, from the BBC's Peaky Blinders) dazzling and bamboozling the wealthy Orgon – here a French movie studio owner in modern-day LA. Orgon's family are determined to break his infatuation with the religious charlatan who's moving in on his estate, and their inheritance.
As with many modern-day settings of Shakespeare, who died a mere six years before Molière's birth, the updating of the play to Trump-era America is heavy handed. So is the staging, an almost empty space dominated by a giant cube which slides backward and forward from time to time and demands that the cast climb in and out, slowing the action. And so too is some of the imagery, particularly the scene in which Orgon's wife Elmire (Audrey Fleurot of French crime series Spiral) allows herself to be sexually assaulted by Tartuffe to show her husband the truth about his hero. It's uncomfortably lewd, probably deliberately so, but seems set up just to allow a 'pussy grabbing' gag later on.
The final monologue, in which Molière ridiculously sucked up to his King Louis XIV (it was the only way his twice-banned play was allowed to be performed, but is so over the top as to be comic) is, of course, also now aimed at the 45th US President.
A great deal of thought has gone into this production, with Hampton – the greatest living translator of plays? – even deciding to change the English lines from the French Alexandrine metre (12 syllables a line) to Shakespeare-style blank verse (non-rhyming 10 syllables, with a different 'beat') to suit the two languages. But it needs more focus on the play's dynamics and, crucially, humor, than the gimmicks of bilingualism and Trump-baiting.
There are strong performances from all the cast, particularly the French. Vincent Winterhalter plays Cleante (Orgon's brother) like a loucher Peter Capaldi in Doctor Who, ageing rock star mode, and Claude Perron fizzes as Dorine, the servant who tries to hold things together as the world goes mad around her. But fittingly the play's strongest character, Elmire, gets the production's strongest performance by Fleurot.
This production could be made to work better with some tweaks, and it should not put off other sur-titled plays, either bi-lingual or entirely foreign language, on the usually English-speaking stage.