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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Tartuffe
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 complications.)

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 answers.

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 forget him.

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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Tartuffe - National- Theatre 2019

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