When Dominic Power and Andrew Hilton designate their version of Tartuffe as being ‘after’ Molière, it’s in the same sense that I come ‘after’ my great-great-great-grandmother. There’s some shared DNA present, but the language, the clothes, the sensibilities and the reference points are all conspicuously different. In fact, the production has ‘modern Molière’ stamped through it like writing in a stick of rock (only it wouldn’t use ‘stick of rock’ as its simile, it would choose ‘like a trending hashtag’ or similar).
The household the imposter has installed himself in is that of a Tory cabinet minister and his Made in Hampstead kiddies. Tartuffe (Mark Meadows) is an ingratiating man-child loudly OMMMMing his way through a Westerner’s wet dream of spirituality. For parliamentarian Charles Ogden (Christopher Bianchi), this baseball-capped slimeball is the ideal target at which to direct his misguided and middle-aged insecurities. The younger of the men has come to attention as the author of a misery memoir titled Our Kid. The hardknocks hardback relays Tartuffe’s if-you-can-call-it-that childhood in a caravan in North Wales with every depressing and sordid detail savoured over. Rather than assess what his own political party might have to do with childhood poverty, Charles becomes entranced by this fake hero of the working class and suggests he marry his daughter Melissa (Daisy May) and take the family house as a contribution to his charity.
Alongside these two – and normally perched on over-stuffed sofas – are the other largely unlovable members of the Ogden household, plus the more bearable Polish housekeeper Danuta (Anna Elijasz). The fact they’re unlovable is a deliberate choice of the production, not because of individual performances. Philip Buck is entirely convincing as the political sketchwriter Clem who really can’t believe that his family life is now far weirder than anything he sees in Westminster. Saskia Portway as Emma, Charles’s wife, radiates the kind of stress that comes from being exposed to absolutely no stress at all. You’d accuse her of being a hypochondriac if it weren’t for the fact that with Tartuffe lurking in the guest bedroom she perhaps does have something to get a headache about after all.
The problem is that we end up with a family of cosseted Conservatives being deceived by a malicious twerp who sells dodgy timeshare deals on the side. The question of ‘who do we root for’ is slightly salvaged by Danuta, a cleaner with a PhD in Astrophysics. However, the message that people shouldn’t be patronising to Polish women in the service industries is doled out with a real lack of subtlety. It also doesn’t answer the wider question of why we should care that horrid people are getting duped by horrid people.
There are other aspects of the production that also suffer from trying to overtly BE RELEVANT. A name drop for Trump is a low point, as is the actual insertion of the date (“It’s 2017!” they yell, as if we were none the wiser). A cheesy line near the end comparing decent scotch to the timelessness of Molière both replicates Bill Murray advertising Suntori in Lost In Translation and puts me in need of a drink to forget its naffness.
Far better are the cleverly pitched depictions of middleclass affectations. Charles in Lycra belting out a mantra that is later revealed to translate as ‘I am a wanker’ is a particularly funny moment. The idea of the New Age guru playing on the consciences of the moneyed Londoners with reminiscences of his childhood in – gasp – North Wales is an amusing means of revealing the characters’ insularities and hypocrisies. As Clem would no doubt agree, making politicians look silly always feels relevant.
Tartuffe is on at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol until 6th May 2017. Click here for more details.