Review: Tartuffe (Bell Shakespeare)

bellshakespeareVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jul 26 – Aug 23, 2014
Playwright: Justin Fleming (after Molière)
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Leon Ford, Sean O’Shea, Helen Dallimore, Geraldine Hakewill, Kate Mulvany, Charlie Garber, Tom Hobbs, Jennifer Hagan, Robert Jago, Russell Smith, Scott Witt
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review (originally published at Auditorium Magazine)

Stories that stand the test of time contain truths that resonate across generations. They bear a universality that seems to derive from the very essence of being human, and a good retelling of those tales will always reveal to us, the nature of our being, and perhaps more importantly, the morals we should live by, however we choose to respond. Tartuffe has a central theme that does not age. Our relationship with religion as individuals and as collectives come into scathing scrutiny, and the way this resonance persists is a potent indication of the concerns we live with, and sadly, how little some things evolve. Molière’s play is now 350 years old, and what was controversial then, can still be used for contentious discussion today.

Justin Fleming’s exciting new script shows great talent and flair. It is an adaptation that feels updated and immediate, yet it preserves a classic sensibility, most notably through his use of rhymes. The original featured rhyming couplets, and Fleming’s decision not to deviate too far from it is felicitous, especially with new rhyme structures that are more varied and surprising. The play’s religious complexion is faithfully retained, but Fleming’s writing reconditions its gender dynamics to reflect modern day conventions. From this perspective, it is pleasing to observe the diminishment of sexism, even if religion’s place in the world seems to have obstinately endured over these centuries. By far the most drastic flourish is found in the overhauled ending of the piece. The change is a brave one, but its effectiveness is debatable. While it displays a quirky humour that can fit quite well with the style of Molière, the production falters at this point of “supernaturality”, not quite able to execute a vision with sufficient aplomb.

The venue is a large one, with a stage size that is challenging for any play featuring only a handful of performers in each scene. Director Peter Evans’ emphasis on authenticity in dialogue delivery is admirable, but memorable moments of the production come from performances that are more about flamboyance than nuance, and the frequently realistic level of interpretation seems to waste not just the vastness of the auditorium, but also the wildness of Molière’s concepts. As a result, performers like Scott Witt who have a greater command of physical capacities capture more of our attention (Witt also serves as Movement Director). Theatre is as much about space as it is about words. There are texts difficult to master, and likewise, there are stages that are harder to conquer. Not all characters are externalised enough, whether due to ability or creative choices, and the comedy is consequently uneven. Leon Ford as Tartuffe is neither majestic nor repulsive. The actor does have a captivating presence, but the role calls for more extravagant malevolence and a certain enigma that is never achieved. The play provides for his entrance tremendous build-up, but when he finally materialises, the Tartuffe we see does not live up to our imagined personality who is more evil and animated, and definitely less attractive.

The script is outlandish and titillating, always with an air of controversy, but what Evans puts on stage is safe by comparison. There is irreverence in content but not in its form. Bell Shakespeare is a professional theatre company doing theatre properly, and their Tartuffe is charming and polished. Expectations of a more anarchic rendering may be unrealistic, but Molière’s themes evoke heresy and inspire mischief, and without some quality of impoliteness, the play is reduced to something quite frivolous. There is social significance to this story, and due attention needs to be placed on its relevance to the community it plays for. We are after all, in the age of the Mad Monk (one of our Prime Minister’s nicknames), and we have political leaders who advocate the replacement of secular social workers in schools with chaplains. There is clearly fertile ground that can be penetrated, in order that a stronger social criticism can be made from taking on this platform.

The character of Orgon is played by Sean O’Shea, who becomes increasingly delightful as the hysteria escalates. Like many of the cast, his early scenes seem oddly subdued, but greater exuberance appears further into the piece. O’Shea has a playfulness that connects well with his audience, and establishes a good level of believability as both the master of the house and the fool. However, the mockery out of Orgon is not made strongly enough. It can be argued that the gravity of the play lies in Orgon and his mother’s irrational trust in Tartuffe, and the devastating effects that follow. The pertinence of their blind faith cannot be understated, and not giving it greater prominence seems to be missing the point altogether.

Stand out performances include Kate Mulvany’s Dorine, who is easily the most colourful and confident on stage. Mulvany’s remarkable wit is clearly a highlight, and her enthusiasm for creating theatrical magic out of every sentence is a marvel to watch. Charlier Garber’s comedy style is an excellent match for the frenetic energy of Molière’s crazed world. Garber capitalises on his extraordinary lankiness and idiosyncratic hairstyle, manufacturing an almost cartoonish character that never fails to amuse.

Also commendable are the production’s visual design aspects, especially Anna Cordingley’s work on costumes and sets. The script self-consciously mentions “Dolce, Galliano and McQueen”, indicating the family’s affluence and interest in style, and Cordingley certainly manages to impress upon us, a world of some extravagance and luxury, including an unforgettably exquisite costume for Madame Pernelle. Over-sized set pieces add a sense of wonder, and help with segmenting and shrinking stage spaces, but the unruly wheels on a very dominant chesterfield sofa need to be tamed to prevent its repeated, unintended and distracting slipping and sliding.

Bell Shakespeare’s Tartuffe is an entertaining work with committed performances and slick production values. Its level of professionalism is exceptional in an artistic landscape that tends to reserve our biggest talents for commercial musical theatre, and for productions overseas. Great stories however, are not only about entertainment and refinement. They are defined by the depth at which they move us, and as Molière’s immortality has shown, it is always the moral of the story that truly counts.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au