Molière’s greatest comedy Tartuffe was originally censored because of its satirical depiction of religious hypocrisy, but went on to become the most performed French play. This version by Christopher Hampton transposes the action from seventeenth-century France to Trump’s America. Spoken alternately in French and English (with surtitles throughout), it is also the first dual-language play to be performed in the West End. Unfortunately, neither of these adaptations work very well in a show that is not nearly as funny as it should be.
The French media mogul Orgon has brought his family to live in Los Angeles where he owns a studio but, in reaction against the materialistic and hedonistic excesses of their affluent lifestyle, he has fallen under the spell of Tartuffe, an evangelical preacher whom everyone else (apart from Orgon’s mother) recognises as an imposter or hypocrite. In a reckless display of his new-found faith, Orgon plans to cancel his daughter’s wedding and make her marry Tartuffe instead, while passing his estate on to Tartuffe after disinheriting his son. Meanwhile Tartuffe also has designs on Orgon’s younger wife Elmire, who tries to expose his deception.
The updated setting could have made sense as American consumer capitalism clashes with a longing for spiritual renewal amid the influence of some dodgy Christian fundamentalism, but it is not successfully implemented here. Interestingly, Tartuffe is portrayed more as a fanatic than a fraudster, as someone who genuinely seems to believe that he has special privileges from God to behave any way he desires, but Orgon’s extreme gullibility in falling for Tartuffe’s messianic message is not made believable. This ‘straighter’, more sinister interpretation works against the absurd humour of the play, whose jokes often fall flat here.
Moreover, there’s a credibility problem in this contemporary version with a father apparently being able to enforce whom his daughter marries, and even more so when the daughter seems powerless to resist it until others intervene. And the clumsily handled, steamy ‘seduction’ scene between Elmire and Tartuffe – when it’s not clear who’s seducing whom – is more voyeuristic than amusing in an unevenly toned show.
The ending of the show is embarrassing – and not in a good way. Originally this involved a deus ex machina with a messenger from Louis XIV arriving to resolve all the problems, but the fulsome tribute to the king’s liberalism has been rewritten as an unconvincing, half-baked jibe at Trump including his alleged secret Russian ties. It feels tacked on as an afterthought.
Hampton has part-translated Molière’s Alexandrines into blank verse, rather than the usual iambic pentameter rhyming couplets, so the effect is more naturalistically conversational than wittily stylised. But there seems little point in shifting from one language to another, without a consistent rationale behind it in the storyline, so that it becomes an irritating distraction in an awkwardly staged production by Gérald Garutti that lacks any sense of jeu d’esprit.
Andrew D. Edwards’s reflective design suggests a self-obsessed society, while also evoking the empty blue skies of California and the play of sunlight on the water of a pool. But the strange suspended perspex box that members of the cast sometimes enter, which is either illuminated in different colours or blanked out, hampers free-flowing movement.
Paul Anderson plays Tartuffe as a creepy, southern-voiced doomsday prophet (barefoot and bearded, with a large cross tattooed on his back) who is more deluded sociopath than opportunist on the make. Sebastian Roché’s implausibly naïve Orgon seems too light-hearted to be having a mid-life breakdown. Playing a slinky, self-possessed Elmire, Audrey Fleurot runs rings around the men though her cool detachment belies the crisis in her family. Vincente Winterhalter as her brother Cleante and Claude Perron as the maid Dorine inject some comic zest into a show that is woefully short of laughs – even a franglais version would have been more diverting.
Tartuffe is on until 28 July 2018 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Click here for more details.