21 February 2019
A tale of two Tartuffes
by Adam McCormack
Seeing the same play twice within a week might seem a little strange or indulgent. However, when the two versions are so different – and have widely different levels of success – it makes for an interesting examination of why some theatre works and some just doesn’t, however hard it tries and regardless of how starry the cast.
Theatre: Tartuffe at the National Theatre – reviewed by Adam McCormack
Star Rating *
Re-imaging Moliere’s 17th Century work to 21st Century Highgate is an idea that has great promise. That a wealthy industrialist or City fat cat could be entranced and duped by a shaman is credible. Finding someone who gives up hope of finding truth and reason in an unfair and disordered world, while helping a family to come to terms with their underserved riches, strikes right at the heart of the ever-growing division between the haves and the have-nots. Further those responsible can abrogate responsibility for putting thing right. It is disappointing then to report that writer John Donelly’s re-working of a great play fails so miserably.
Orgon (Kevin Doyle) has taken Tartuffe (Denis O’Hare) into his house and allowed him to dictate the future direction for his family. Orgon’s mother, Pernelle (Susan Engel), has also fallen under Tartuffe’s spell, but his children see him for what he is – a fraud seeking financial and sexual gratification – and matters come to a head when Orgon insists that his daughter marry Tartuffe, rather than her poet lover Valere, a move that provokes reactions that force Orgon to disown both of his children. Orgon’s wife Elmire (Olivia Williams) similarly sees through Tartuffe and resolves to stage a scene where Orgon can witness the true nature of his supposed guru.
All of this should set the scene for great farcical comedy and a timeless biting commentary on the ascendancy of the moneyed classes. It starts well with a bacchanalian party resulting in Valere falling out of a window and making his escape naked (his modesty covered by a hat) across the front of the audience. From this point however, the play suffers from a lack of credibility. The dialogue is stilted and the humour clunky, particularly in its attempts to capture topical themes. The farcical situations, which usually work so well in this play seem contrived and result in a top quality cast having to try too hard to extract comedic value. There are some high points, notably Elmire’s’s attempt to honey-trap Tartuffe and Valere’s performance poetry, but they are relatively few.
What of Tartuffe himself? There is no doubting O’Hare’s ability as a versatile comic actor but, while he just about gets away with a mangled east European accent, the garbled collage of spiritual references does him no service, making it hard to believe that anyone could regard him as a bona fide guru. Having started well by wooing the audience with daffodils, by the end his appeal for compassion fell not on deaf, but disinterested ears.
In short, this version of Tartuffe just does not work. The denouement, involving a swat team and a descent into rhyming couplets, is a mess that scrambles to shoehorn the play’s social message into a chaos that is nowhere near as funny as it could, or should, be.
Tartuffe at The RSC – reviewed by Adam McCormack
Star Rating ****
Theatre is at its best when it takes risks, and when those risks pay off. Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto’s new version of Tartuffe, in a modern West Midlands setting, takes some big risks and, to a large extent, they pay off handsomely.
Imran Pervaiz has made a fortune organising parties and events, allowing his Anglo-Pakistani family to live the good life indulgently in a prosperous Birmingham suburb. However, he has become racked with guilt that this lifestyle compromises his Muslim upbringing and beliefs. Having met a supposed religious guru, Tahir Taufiq Arsuf (”Tartuffe”), he has resolved to change both his and his family’s blasphemous ways. Not only is Tartuffe invited into the family home but Imran also seeks to marry him to his daughter and transfer his assets, freeing himself from his life of excess. It is soon clear to all but Imran and his mother that Tartuffe is not the devout and pious man of faith he makes out to be. Spending most of his time on computer games, while trying to seduce Imran’s wife Amira (Sasha Behar), he leaves the audience in no doubt that he is an imposter. Sassy student daughter, Mariam, and guileless son Damee seem destined to be thrown out of the house for failing to comply with Imran’s wishes, so it is left to Amira to show Tartuffe for the imposter he really is. The comic timing of the faux seduction scene, and the reluctance of Imran to emerge from his hiding place, is perfect, demonstrating farce, as it should be played.
Introducing Islam, rather than those operating under the guise of the Catholic Church, as was the case in the Moliere’s original play, runs the risk of causing upset. However, there is never any suggestion here that Tartuffe is anything other than a conman, who has chosen to play on the vulnerabilities of those who have cause for remorse. Asif Khan (Tartuffe) and Simon Nagra (Imran) manage to make the con entirely credible, while losing nothing of the comic pathos of the original premise. Michelle Bonnard as the all-seeing Bosnian cleaner Darina is perfect in holding the narrative together and delivers some of the most telling, comic and, in the ultimate epilogue, poignant messages of the play. There is no shortage of knowing laughter as she gets away with voicing her outspoken views on the basis that – getting a good cleaner is so difficult.
The rap from Imran’s son Damee and beat-boxing from Usman, Tartuffe’s assistant (Riad Ritchie), occasionally grates, but works overall in helping to make this a play that demonstrates that 17th Century issues still have great resonance today, while making it accessible and attractive to a younger audience. There is a very strong case for taking this play to the West End.