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.

Gogol giggles

The Government Inspector

Gardens Theatre

March 18 – 23

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After some pre-show policemen vocal entertainment, David Harrower’s version of Nikolay Gogol’s “The Government Inspector” begins with a town meeting at which the audience serve as attendees alongside the officials of a small Russian town. Word has been received that an inspector will be arriving incognito and under the direction of the Mayor (Tom Yaxley) everyone must spring into action to cover-up their many wrongdoings. As characters emerge from within the audience to voice their terror at the prospect, it becomes clear why the house lights have remained on and it is, unfortunately, some time before they are dimmed to allow the audience to properly settle.

It is a frenetic first scene, entirely appropriate for Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 comedy of errors satire of greed, stupidity and political corruption of Imperial Russia. And from there the absurdity continues like a story from the franchise of Carry On films; when news that a suspicious stranger has arrived from St Petersburg and is staying in the local motel, he is mistaken for the inspector and the penniless, opportunist civil servant Khlestakov (Liam Soden) takes full advantage of the confused identity to fleece the townsfolk for all that they have.

An inspired set helps to take audience members through the town, which is depicted at front of stage through a series of cardboard box models, completing with their own lighting. Much is made of the cramped hotel room ‘box’ in which performers interact, reflecting David Bell’s precise direction.

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The polish of the QUT final-year acting students’ performance of the farce is also seen in the after-intermission high speed Act One recap, a touch which adds interest to an act that lags a little comparative to earlier scenes. This is, however, until Khlestrakov’s individual meetings with the town’s merchants, sick and tired of the Mayor’s ludicrous demands for bribes, are punctuated the Mayor’s daughter Maria’s (Hugo Kohne) hilarious, show-stopping lip-sync attempt at seduction.

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As the paranoid, corrupt Mayor, Yaxley acquits himself equally well in delivery of hysterical speeches and nervous grovelling. And particularly in Act Two, Soden gives an engaging performance as the imposter inspector, regaling locals who have (literally) rolled out the red carpet for him, with exaggerated stories of his imagined life in St Petersburg. The standout performances, however, come from Meg Clark and Emily Weir as squires Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky. Like Shakespeare’s bumbling, almost-identical Rosencrantz and Guildenstern they are easily bamboozled and bamboozling themselves in their transferred enlightenment and epiphanies. Together, their physical comedy and finely tuned timing result in many audience giggles.

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At almost three hours duration, “The Government Inspector” is a commitment. Yet the time rarely drags thanks to its energetic performances and rapid scene transitions, to upbeat musical bursts. Indeed, the production does everything it can to squeeze as much as possible out of the 19th Century satire, resulting in a dynamic and spirited production of which the cast and creatives should be proud.

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