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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Lyttelton Theatre      Spring 2002

The National Theatre's new production of Moliere is a sparkling comic romp, close enough to perfection for all but the most curmudgeonly to be delightfully satisfied.

The tale of a gullible husband and father completely taken in by a fake holy man, and of his family's frustrating attempts to open his eyes before it's too late, gives a bright and talented cast plenty of scope to exploit Moliere's witty and sharply pointed dialogue.

Indeed, it is Moliere who is the real star of the evening, along with translator Ranjit Bolt, with every speech a blend of Wildean wit and Swiftian satire.

From the opening moments, when the wonderful Margaret Tyzack, as the mother-in-law from hell, skewers everyone in sight with wicked zingers, the play is one epigram and punch line after another.

Moliere wrote in rhymed couplets, which in other translations too often become self-consciously precious, but Bolt gives them a natural, even contemporary sound, with only a very few false steps ("he's off his tree," "shut your face"), so that the rhymes turn into eagerly-anticipated punch lines and shafts of wit.

And the actors clearly have a lot of fun with the richly comic language. Even more than Tyzack, the evening belongs to Debra Gillett, as one of those clever servants who are staples of social farce.

She plays the uppity, plain-talking maid as very much a twenty-first century woman who refuses to take any guff from anybody, and just wishes all these fools would get out of the way and let her run things.

It's the kind of performance that lifts an actor up several steps in star quality, and we'll be seeing much more of her in the future, I'm sure.

As the conman's patsy, David Threlfall also gives what could be a one-dimensional character new comic facets and even some sympathy.

His Orgon is not a total fool, but a reasonable man who's been taken in, and whose only folly lies in refusing to see it.

Threlfall underlines this nicely by giving Orgon flashes of near-sanity, usually when someone hits him with a particularly telling zinger, when you can actually see in his face the signs of his common sense struggling with his blindness and losing.

The holy fraud himself is actually a relatively small role, more talked about than seen, but Martin Clunes makes the most of him.

Breaking from the slimy, fake-ascetic look of other Tartuffes, he gives us a subtle and clearly well-fed epicure, and one of the play's funniest scenes comes as he calmly but voraciously eats a meal while being talked at by another character.

That scene illustrates one of the directorial challenges of Moliere's style, and one of the few ways Lindsay Posner's direction sometimes misses the mark.

Moliere's characters tend to talk at each other in long, witty speeches, which means that the actors take turns standing there doing nothing while waiting for their opportunity to speak at length.

The eating scene is one of the very few times Posner finds something for the listener to do other than just stand there blankly and is, along with a very funny attempted seduction sequence, just about the only visual humour to be found in the production.

And that is really the one serious criticism to make of this Tartuffe, that it's pretty enough to look at, but visually static. All its pleasures are aural, making it virtually a radio play rather than a wholly successful staging. But perk up your ears, because as a listening experience it is a total delight.

Gerald Berkowitz

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