Tartuffe at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.
Guest reviewer Daniel Bennett attended the press night for Tartuffe, the latest play to hit the Theatre Royal Haymarket’s stage:
Tartuffe is the latest revival to be fashionably inspired by a desire to make a statement about Trump’s America. Others of this ilk include the subtle commentaries on the current western political landscape offered in the recent Broadway production of The Parisian Woman and the thoroughly modern take on Julius Caesar at The Bridge Theatre here in London earlier this year. But where subtlety was the order of the day in those productions, it is certainly not in Tartuffe. This reworking of the 17th century French classic very much puts ideas associated with Trump, Twitter culture and totalitarianism centre-stage.
Tartuffe tells the story of the devastating impact that the eponymous radical preacher has on the family life of a Hollywood director, Orgon, who has befriended him and welcomed him into his Californian home. This preacher is no benign influence. He is hard-line, judgmental and, above all, hypocritical. None of his moral rules seem to apply to himself; he casually justifies every one of his own outrageous actions by drawing on his manipulative interpretation of the religion he preaches. Orgon, in thrall to this man’s seductive evangelism, is blind to the damage his efforts to ingratiate himself with Tartuffe is doing to his family. He rebuffs their hurt and rage, wilfully inattentive to the reality of the situation. Tartuffe is a recognisable caricature in this day and age. He is the strong-man political leader; he is the radical hate-preacher; he is “fake news”. And most worryingly – perhaps most tellingly – of all, he is ultimately defeated not by reason and rationalism, but by a last-minute executive intervention at the entirely arbitrary whim of a Twitter-obsessed President who steps in to protect a fellow millionaire from his self-inflicted fate.
It’s an ambitious show. This new adaptation of Molière’s dark comedy from Christopher Hampton (writer of the screenplays for Dangerous Liaisons and Atonement) is performed in both English and French; Orgon’s family talk to each other in French but to outsiders, including Tartuffe, in English. “Surtitles” (surround titles – displayed on screens around the stage and auditorium) provide translations for both sets of dialogue. The placement of the screens is somewhat awkward, making it difficult to focus on reading the translation and watching the action at the same time, but persevere and you’ll get the hang of it. It’s well-acted and funny (albeit more in the sense of provoking the odd hearty chortle than being a raucous barrel of laughs). It’s intensely ironic and steeped in misunderstandings, giving it a farcical feel that is very much at home in a British theatre.
The lead roles are strong. Peaky Blinders actor Paul Anderson makes for a convincing Tartuffe, simultaneously charismatic and repulsive, stalking creepily around the stage barefoot and on his haunches. Sebastian Roché (The Man in the High Castle) puts in a scarily believable turn as the entranced patriarch, Orgon. The excellent Claude Perron (Amélie), meanwhile, anchors the action – and much of the dialogue – with an engaging performance as the strong-willed and sarcastic Dorine.
For me, the overtness of Tartuffe’s references to Trump and the populist political culture of recent times are less powerful than they might have been had they been subtler. Making such references so obvious that one might as well be shouting them from the rooftops creates a numbing effect which is just about as off-putting as the subject being referenced. And make no mistake, this is a show that screams “I’m making a political point!” loud and clear. But there are certainly layers of meaning in this adaptation – enough to keep up a conversation with a fellow theatre-goer about just who and what Tartuffe himself represents at any given moment for a substantial portion of the journey home. Above all, it’s a play that reminds us that people seek to manipulate us every day – and for that reminder alone, you may find it worth the watch.
Review by Daniel Bennett.