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
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
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.
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
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 forget him.
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.
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
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
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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