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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.