Moliere’s seventeenth-century comedy is no stranger to adaptations and The National Theatre has put up its own version of Tartuffe for the British audiences to enjoy. John Donnelly has adapted the play and made it to fit in present-day England, most importantly, a post-Brexit one.
The play focuses on an affluent family, based in Highgate, living with a stranger brought in by the head of the family Orgon (Kevin Doyle) after what seems to be a mid-life crisis. Orgon brings Tartuffe (Denis O’Hare) into his family, in hopes to bring about change, but he becomes completely mesmerised by the stranger. This is set up from the starting of the play, through the complaints of the family members and their concerns for Orgon's behaviour, and it is clear from the beginning that Tartuffe means trouble. There is a build-up to the actual appearance of the character, who only comes on stage an hour into the play; this long-awaited arrival is worth it, as the audiences get to put a face to the person they have been imagining. Tartuffe turns out to be a short, shabby-looking man and O’Hare stated he wanted to make the character Polish, not French, for this post-Brexit setting. Tartuffe is all about the spiritual and thus, seems to be the antidote for Orgon’s struggles. This leads Orgon attempting to marry his daughter to Tartuffe – even disowning his son, as well as completely ignoring his wife. The only one that actually seems to know what is going on, and tells the family members what to do, is the housekeeper, Dorine (Kathy Clarke). She gets Orgon’s daughter, Mariane to try and persuade him, but the effort fails. Meanwhile, Tartuffe busies himself with eating all the food in the house, as well as lusting over Orgon’s wife, Elmire (Olivia Williams). Through a series of mishaps and comedic scenes, the truth of the situation is revealed to Orgon.
The play, however, was most comedic for me in the scenes where the secondary characters were present, such as the Mariane’s socialist, street poet boyfriend Valere (Geoffrey Lumb), who hates rhyming and Orgon’s mother, Pernelle (Susan Engel) – a treat to watch, who seems to be a modern-day Lady Bracknell from Wilde’s plays. These two, along with Mariane, are hilarious to watch.
The play’s set design by Robert Jones is remarkable. Though only set in one room, it gives a breath of fresh air as compared to the multiple set changes that usually take place in plays. The Lyttelton Theatre illuminates and has a frame running around it, that brightens like a television screen, which makes one feel like they are watching a sit-com at home. The set itself oozed extravagance with an emphasis on the extra. It has a massive gold statue of Michelangelo’s David on full display and is brightened even further with the turquoise walls and silver furniture.
Though the play is a joy to watch, throughout, and does not fall flat, it does cut the laughter slightly with its more moralistic approach that is felt to be thrust upon the audiences at the end of the second half. There are some bits about Tartuffe that are funny, yet some, like his constant ‘namaste’, seem forced. The play is extremely progressive and highlights inequalities with the treatment of women and the poor. However, there are times when the audience is slightly lost when, instead of referencing, there is moral education. The play instead of being a comedy ‘with’ morals is more comedy ‘and’ morals. Nevertheless, it is really entertaining and if you enjoy having some food for thought this play is for you!
Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor
The National Theatre
17th February – 30th April 2019
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including a 20-minute interval
Ticket prices: £15-£50
Matinee: 3:30pm Evening: 7:30pm