The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Spring 2019
On the principle that no lily
should ever be left ungilded, John Donnelly has rewritten Moliere's
Tartuffe to bear only a passing resemblance to the original.
The result is occasionally
thought-provoking, a little less frequently funny and, under Blanche
McIntyre's uninspired direction, generally static and talky. A good joke
or flash of insight every ten minutes or so in an almost-three-hour play
means a lot of dreary ten minute stretches to sit through.
Moliere's satire is about a
religious hypocrite who impresses a gullible rich man with his piety while
secretly lusting after his victim's money and his wife. Donnelly moves the
play from seventeenth-century Paris to twenty-first-century London and
modernises both the language (passing topical references and the
realistically unimaginative abundance of obscenities) and shifts the focus
away from religion.
His Tartuffe is more of a
street-corner philosopher and Orgon a man in midlife crisis, frightened by
a world that seems different and more dangerous than the one he grew up
in, and drawn to someone who offers simple and easy answers with the
promise of a return to what may be only the imagined glories of the past.
(To his credit Donnelly
doesn't overstress the obvious parallels to the appeal of Donald Trump to
middle America or of Brexit before we were told of the costs and
The result is not just to
modernise the story but to add attractive new colours to the two central
characters. As played by Kevin Doyle, Orgon is not just a fool, or even a
fool at all, but rather a man in recognisable pain. He finds his answers
in the wrong place, but we can understand and sympathise with his need for
Denis O'Hare's Tartuffe is an
opportunist and con man, but O'Hare invites the suspicion that the man
sometimes actually believes what he says, at least at the moment he says
it, and thus keeps us a little off balance and unable to pigeonhole and
On the other hand O'Hare
affects an accent and manner of speaking pitched somewhere between Andrew
Sachs as Manuel and Kenneth Williams as anybody, and what may have been
meant to be funny ranges from distracting to irritating.
The updating and shifts in focus affect some of the other characters in refreshing ways. Moliere's sassy maid Dorine is now a more mature housekeeper (and Orgon's former mistress), and Kathy Kiera Clarke plays her as more wise and caring than clever and scheming.
Olivia Williams finds an
attractive mix of practicality and honour in Orgon's wife, and Kitty
Archer keeps his spoiled airhead of a daughter as loveable as spoiled
airheads in plays ought to be.
Blanche McIntyre's direction
is unable to do much with the long sequences in which various characters
debate moral and practical issues, scenes that in stronger directorial
hands might have achieved Shavian power. And she is particularly weak in
what are meant to be moments of physical farce, despite separate credit to
'Physical Comedy Director' Toby Park.
There is a good sight gag
involving a hiding place, but Moliere's comic centrepiece, when Tartuffe
tries to seduce/rape Orgon's wife, is clumsily staged and not particularly
funny (nor, for that matter, particularly offensive. It just sits there.)
In the very final moments of
the play John Donnelly suddenly inserts a socialist political element by
having Tartuffe announce that he's been doing it all as vengeance by the
downtrodden masses against the undeserving rich. At the same time the play
abruptly shifts from contemporary naturalistic dialogue into rhymed
couplets, and the actors start addressing the audience directly.
The awkwardness of all those shifts, along with the imbalance of lively and dull before, suggests that Donnelly's text might be just one more rewrite away from success.
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