Moliere’s modern mark

Tartuffe (Queensland Theatre and Black Swan State Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

November 12 – December 4

It has been said that what Shakespeare is to the English, Molière is to the French. And in Justin Fleming’s new version of the French playwright’s “Tartuffe” there are a number of dramatic parallels between the two greats. Shakespeare references appear peppered throughout the text and, although conflict is established early, the titular character does not make appearance on stage until Act Three.

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Ahead of the delayed introduction, there is much talk of Tartuffe, allowing the audience to build up a profile of the character that is far from complementary.  Posing as a spiritual advisor, houseguest Tartuffe (Darren Gilshenan) is selling salvation to successful socialite Orgon (Steve Turner), intent on ruining his lavish life by stealing away with his fortune and his wife Elmire (Alison van Reeken). Orgon’s family can see through the fraudulent opportunist imposter but head of the house Orgon regards the slick swindler as his salivation, to the extent that he and his mother (Jenny Davis) no longer take any action without first consulting him. Orgon even announces that he will marry Tartuffe to his daughter Mariane (Tessa Lind), already engaged to Valère (James Sweeny).

With Mariane distraught at this idea, the family devises a scheme to trap Tartuffe into confessing to Elmire his desire for her, however, all does not go according to plan with Orgon refusing to believe his wife, disinheriting his son (Alex Williams) and signing a deed of gift of all his property to the con-man before things end somewhat abruptly with a deus ex machine sudden surprise solution.

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In its satire of religious hypocrisy, “Tartuffe” is filled with witty dialogue, irony and timeless comedic conventions like overheard conversations. Richard Roberts’ set design not only transposes the 350 year old narrative to the contemporary world but allows for some fabulous French farce exaggerated moments of physical comedy such as attempts to hide behind furniture and furnishing. And the impressive rotating stage allows action to be taken both upstairs and outside to a balcony and patio, which adds interest to what is a lengthy work.

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Most noteworthy, however, is the text itself, which, in keeping with Moliere’s original work, is arranged in rhyming couplets. Although initially sing-songy as matriarch Madame Pernelle begins with an onslaught of insults upon her family, it soon settles to become more easy-on-the-ear in its rhythm, thanks to Fleming’s re-working of the script through use of modern Australian vernacular and clever incorporation of ockerisms within the dialogue. The result is inspired in its irreverence with sayings like ‘shut your crack Dorine’ sitting smoothly alongside more sophisticated language.

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Under the direction of Kate Cherry, there are no weak links in the stellar cast, however, the rhyming couplet dialogue seems to sit most comfortably in the mouths of Jenny Davis and Hugh Parker (as Cleante), especially in Parker’s final incantation as an ABC news reporter exposing Tartuffe’s regard of religion as sport. As the ‘monologue Queen’, family maid Dorine, Emily Weir is hilariously funny, particularly in scenes of interaction with the man of the house. Her often risqué lines are delivered with ocker emphasis of the “Kath and Kim” kind. And even though her over-the-top characterisation sometimes borders on too much of a distraction from her essential verbal and physical comedy, the first hour is riveting because of her presence and the second half suffers in her absence.

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As the self-proclaimed holy man Tartuffe, Gilshenan is transparently insincere and appropriately sleazy more than seductive in his rhetoric as his driving base impulses are laid bare (literally). His embrace of the conniving character’s negative charisma is so convincing that at encore, his curtain call is met with audience boos of the lecherous lascivious liar.

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In its day, “Tartuffe” was a controversial play; when first performed in the 17th century it was damned due to its attack on religious hypocrisy. Yet this production also leaves its mark in reveal of its resonance within a contemporary world in which opinion is currently divided about political salvation or damnation. Its overriding theme of appearance versus reality also resonates on a more intimate level with assertion that those who act only in self-interest should be regarded with suspicion. As the final show of the season, the play is perfectly pitched: light-hearted and not too thinky, but playful and funny to the point of snorts of audience laughter.

Homegrown hil-AIR-ity

Gasp (Queensland Theatre Company and Black Swan State Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

November 17 – December 7

“Gasp” is a reworking of the first play by internationally renowned comic writer Ben Elton, originally starring Hugh Laurie… and it shows … #inagoodway. So fans of Elton’s sitcom “Black Adder” will surely delight in the show’s sharp, irreverent humour. More than this, however, the work is filled with accessible political and social satire to engage even the most causal of theatre goers; it’s like a more vibrant David Williamson work.

“Gasp” (originally “Gasping”) has been reimagined in a contemporary Australian context (Elton’s homeland of the last 25 years), where the country has gone giddy on the resource boom. Mining is the only game in town and Lockheart Industries is leading the pack (if god wanted to buy into Lockhart he’d have to think twice and talk to his people). Inspired by the asthmatic Peggy (Lucy Goleby), clever, low-level executive Phil (Damon Lockwood) impresses company head Chifley Lockheart (Greg McNeill) when he creates the ‘Suck & Blow’ filter machine to produce clean air because ‘if you don’t have suck and blow, the rest is just hot air’. As sales skyrocket, Phil becomes a corporate superstar. So slick is the ensuing advertising campaign that there are times within Act One where you might find yourself considering the merits of a better class of oxygen (because other people’s air just gets right up your nose), ahead of the government’s announcement of a national suck and blow network.

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Staging of this QTC/ Black Swan State Theatre Company co-production is as slick as a steam room big business deal. The opening image of a red Arne Jacobsen chair centre stage against gleaming white corporate surrounds sets the aesthetic tone and a luscious lighting design fills the space with floods of glorious colour. The multi-media screen backdrop is used with versatility to allow for inclusion of media snippet insights into how the world beyond the Lockheart offices is reacting to the innovation and subsequent division of the planet into the haves and the have-nots (if you can’t pay, you don’t breathe). The dynamism that this brings to the story again cements the brilliance of production designer Optikal Bloc’s Midas theatrical touch.

As protagonist Phil, Lockwood eases into a performance that is sometimes reminiscent of Prince George (Hugh Laurie’s loud mouthed idiot “Blackadder” character) especially in the delivery of lines about “women all round the world walking around with Aussie beaches in their boobies” (thanks to silicon from sand), however, his dialogue is sometimes encumbered by long and obscure analogies. There is also an inherent humour to Steve Rooke’s portrayal of the smarmy Sandy, Phil’s initial superior at the firm. His dramatic nature and libertine tendencies are are played to perfection (reminiscent of television’s Douglas Reynhold character in “The IT Crowd”) in physicality and vocal inflection. As a muppet of marketing, where nothing goes without saying, Caroline Brazier is a delightful business-class babe; her matter-of-fact delivery and the comic timing of her bitchy comments provide some of the biggest laughs of Act Two as she sets her sights on the naïve Phil and reveals in air snob superiority.

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Despite its sharp humour, “Gasp” is not without conscience and moral questions feature at its core as the environmental impacts of oxygen stockpiling and privatisation begin to emerge. Indeed, its final moments of salvation are a comforting conclusion after two hours of unscrupulous corporate corruption and unethical behaviour, as big business goes bad, prioritising profit over humanity, which is, unfortunately far too recognisable. This topicality is what gives the play so much of its appeal; it is a show rooted in time and place due to its plentiful pop culture references. From Tony Abbot and Joe Hockey to Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart, Lara Bingle, Miranda Kerr, Tim Tams, Target and “Farmer Wants a Wife”, to “QandA”, “The 7.30 Report” and Tassie tree huggers, this essentially corporate comedy includes a favourite line for everyone, making this a perfectly placed end to the 2014 QTC season. While its wit makes it quite a talky play, its razor sharp humour makes “Gasp” quite hil-AIR-ious.