It’s remarkable that a 17th century French comedy can be revived today as a state-of-the-nation play. And yet here we are, not only with this new adaptation at The National Theatre but with two last year: the RSC’s provocative British-Pakistani modernisation and the bilingual California-set version at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Of course, it’s always been a political work, but MoliÃ¨re’s Tartuffe clearly strikes a Trump-era chord.
Here, it’s performed in a new version by John Donnelly, directed by Blanche McIntyre. Together they transport the plot to present day Highgate, with a production that plays with classicism and modernism. Robert Jones’ lavish set features a giant-sized statue of David clad in gold, a symbol of both wealth and excess.
The plot remains the same. Orgon, head of his house, has been brainwashed and duped by Tartuffe, a religious zealot. Slowly but surely, Tartuffe manipulates Orgon and infiltrates his household, turning him against his family. Moliere’s aim was twofold: to undermine the hypocrisy of the ruling class, while simultaneously satirising the hypocrisy of religion.
That remains here in a densely political production. Each scene seems to touch on a different side of the political Rubik’s cube: class divides, generational gaps, gender inequality. Donnelly’s script is witty and fun, yet still manages to transpose the drama to the age of Brexit, Trump and #MeToo that all simmer beneath the surface. As Orgon, Downton Abbey’s Kevin Doyle is as anxious and fidgety as any untrustworthy politician, while Denis O’Hare’s Tartuffe is a new-age hippy type with a top knot, one minute preaching Namaste and the next coming on to Orgon’s wife. He’s a wriggling, slippery character, a sleazy parasite on the family but one you cannot take your eyes off.
Particularly well done are the scenes between Doyle and Kitty Archer as Orgon’s daughter Mariane. Arranged marriage is twisted into a relatable millennial dependency on parents, both actors stirring up antagonism between young and old. In Mariane we see the ditzy money-grabbing youth, as privileged financially as she is in her shallow feminism. Yet there’s a helpless naivety too, while Orgon is an inept madman who frustratingly cannot be overruled. Their scenes, though funny, are a fair summation of today’s generational tension.
Really, though, the production is a clash of the rich and poor. Orgon’s family saunter in their slinky costumes and sunglasses, while Tartuffe cowers, amusingly, in his boxers. Orgon is consumed by the guilt of the upper class and a moral obligation to aid those less fortunate; Tartuffe becomes his spiritual guide and his undoing. Both characters are pleasingly ambiguous: do we sympathise with a man trying to do good, even at the expense of his family, or do we sympathise with a man seeking a simpler life having being dealt a poor hand?
In the final scenes, though, the rug is pulled from beneath us. Donnelly’s script turns to proselytizing rhyming couplets as justice is served – not against Orgon and the corrupt government, but against Tartuffe. As order is restored, the cast turn to the audience accusingly and the stage tilts threateningly towards us, as if we had a hand in this deceit. All ambiguity is lost and the play’s true politics are laid bare – Tartuffe, as representative of the lower class, really is deserving of our sympathy after all. How dare the upper class – and us theatregoers – side with the privileged!
Even above all this, though, the play works on a purely entertaining level. Anxiety is balanced with farcical humour and slapstick comedy, the bitingly satirical script keeping the pace moving swiftly despite the play’s length. The performances are also excellent. O’Hare amuses as the eccentric Tartuffe, Kathy Kiera Clarke is the voice of reason as the fierce Dorine, and Geoffrey Lumb’s Valere is a delightfully inept revolutionary poet. Susan Engel, though, threatens to steal the show as Orgon’s scathingly droll mother Pernelle despite only featuring in two scenes.
This new Tartuffe marries modernism with philosophising in a fun skewering of present day politics, even if its conclusion is a little heavy handed. It’s testament to the power of Moliere’s original, too, that his play remains so potent.
Tartuffe is on at the National Theatre until 30th April. More info here.