Review: Tartuffe ~ theatre notes

Friday, February 22, 2008

Review: Tartuffe

Tartuffe by Molière, adapted by Louise Fox, directed by Matthew Lutton. Companion artist Neil Armfield. Set and costumes by Anna Tregloan, lighting by Paul Jackson, composer Peter Farnan. With Laura Brent, Marcus Graham, Francis Greenslade, Peter Houghton, Rebecca Massey, Barry Otto, Ezekiel Ox, Luke Ryan and Alison Whyte. Malthouse Theatre until March 8. Bookings: (03) 9685 5111.

A minor puzzle of 2008 is that, as if we are suddenly a small outpost of France, Melbourne’s two major companies are hosting three plays by Molière, including two productions of Tartuffe. It remains to be seen if this is too much of a good thing. But the sizzling adaptation of Tartuffe now on at the Malthouse demonstrates that Molière’s joyously wicked satire remains as apt now as it was four centuries ago.

Molière’s comedy is founded on the gloss of human appearances, on the slippery gaps between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. In his own time, his relentless satirical attacks on the hypocrisies and vulgarities of the elite made his plays immensely popular, and also caused them to be banned for offending against religion.

It is moot whether Molière's defence - that rather than attacking religion itself, his plays were truly pious in attacking those who adopted the trappings of piety without the substance - holds true or is a little disingenuous. Certainly, in this version he is presented as the uncensored atheist he might have been if the mores of the time had permitted such frankness.

Without a whiff of deadening reverence, Louise Fox’s adaptation sticks closely to the spirit and structure of the original play. The action is transposed to a garishly imagined version of contemporary Toorak, where the wealthy patriarch Orgon (Barry Otto), after narrowly surviving a heart attack, has been born again under the insidious influence of the charismatic charlatan Tartuffe.

Tartuffe (Marcus Graham) is an evangelist Christian in the mode of Tom Cruise – handsome, cut (we get plenty of opportunities to admire his torso) and deeply creepy. And beneath his slickly pious exterior beats the heart of a conman. Having gained Orgon’s unwavering trust, Tartuffe ruthlessly exploits his position, causing havoc in Orgon’s dismayed family. He attempts to seduce Orgon’s wife Elmira (Alison Whyte), gains power of attorney over his fortune and is promised in marriage to his daughter Mariane (Laura Brent).

Fox’s version, written in robustly colloquial rhyming verse, finds contemporary equivalents for Molière’s targets, and makes merciless fun of Melbourne’s suburban mores, from Toorak to Werribee. Her biggest departure from the text is a boldly blasphemous reworking of Molière’s original deux ex machina ending. In the hands of Peter Houghton, here given a touch of divine amplification, it's a theatrical coup.

Despite his absence due to illness, the production still bears the mark of Michael Kantor's fascination with rough theatre, and it's hard to disentangle Matthew Lutton's directorial vision from Kantor's. It's certainly directed with a lot of vim. Just as Molière fused the vulgar theatre of his day – farce and commedia dell’arte - with literary drama, Lutton’s production weaves together the conventions of traditional French farce and contemporary popular culture. The result is feisty and very Australian, drawing on local traditions of clowning and physical theatre that date back to the Australian Performing Group. It’s rude, crude and vulgar, animated by a lively intelligence.

And again like Molière’s play, it doesn’t make a lot of sense so much as a lot of pointed nonsense. Orgon’s family – shallow, narcissistic, materialistic and selfish – lounge around the pool in their gated mansion in white bathers and sunnies, presenting a series of immediately recognisable social “types” that are contemporary equivalents of the stock characters of commedia dell'arte.

Alison Whyte is Elmire, Orgon’s second wife, the blonde, toned, spoilt socialite; her daughter Mariane (Laura Brent) is a not very bright innocent with the hint of an eating disorder, and the son (Luke Ryan) is an inarticulate, violent private schoolboy who is no good at school but excellent at rowing. Francis Greenslade is Cleante, Orgon's brother, a Toorak Buddhist who is one of the two oases of common sense in the play, while the other is provided by the voluble Dorine (Rebecca Massey) as the Russian maid. Mariane’s fiance Valere (Ezekiel Ox) is a Lebanese homeboy who hangs out at the local mosque when he’s not (presumably) doing wheelies in his doof-doof Valiant.

At the centre of the action is Barry Otto’s performance as Orgon, an exquisitely poised balancing act between genuine poignancy and vulnerability and self-interested blindness, folly, selfishness and greed. He plays both Orgon and his mother, Madame Pernelle, which necessitates at one point, in a comic highlight, a phone conversation with himself. It’s a truly virtuosic performance.

Anna Tregloan’s set is designed in traverse, with a narrow stage running through the centre of the theatre that features a stylised pool and dayglo turf. It gives the audience the opportunity to study one another across the stage, perhaps leading to further reflections about Molière’s observations of human folly. And the action is heightened by a mishmash of popular music, courtesy of a lively score from former Boom Crash Opera soundman Peter Farnan.

It’s a high energy, irresistibly funny production. And perhaps as close as we can get to the vitality and contemporary bite that Molière’s work had when it was first produced.

Picture: publicity shot for Tartuffe featuring Marcus Graham and Barry Otto.

A shorter version of this review appears in today's Australian.


Anonymous said...

I thought that whether someone enjoyed this might depend on what sort of humor they preferred, or were in the mood for.

I thought you might have enjoyed it a lot if you were looking for a light farce, with fairly frivolous and easily digested fare. At first I was put off a bit by what seemed to be some exaggerated overacting but quickly came to think that the tongue-in-cheek hamming it up was appropriate to the spirit and tone of the script. I thought a lot of performances were excellent if considered in that light.

On the other hand, I'm not so sure you'd have enjoyed it so much if you were looking for comedy with a real edge, looking for a biting satire with some subtle and deft cuts in its portrayal of hypocrisy, gullibility, etc.

I don't know the original play and so I can't comment on the closeness of the adaptation. I'm not even sure how much it matters since it is clearly billed as a modern adaptation, not as the original.

Alison Croggon said...

Interesting point, NTG - is it Moliere's Tartuffe or isn't it? And how much does it matter?

Alison Croggon said...

...thinking on, I suppose one of the things I enjoy about theatre - in fact, one of the things I enjoy equally about reading, or looking at visual art - is how different works are in conversation with one another, how traditions and influences interweave and are questioned in each particular work, etc etc. So one of the main questions in my head about any adaptation is its relationship to whatever is being adapted. So of course I read the original play - or at least a translation of it, which is not quite the same thing - before I came to this production, and compared Fox's directly. Should this matter to anyone else? I've no idea, though surely it's one of the pleasures of culture...but I suppose my point is that it is advertised as Moliere's Tartuffe, and that - with some twists in vocabulary and diction - is basically very precisely what you get.

Nicholas Pickard said...

... and while you guys get your overdose of Moliere... Sydney suddenly finds itself with three - count them - three productions of Twelfth Night...

Alison Croggon said...

Are there only ten plays in the world, or something?

Chris Boyd said...

The result is feisty and very Australian, drawing on local traditions of clowning and physical theatre that date back to the Australian Performing Group. It’s rude, crude and vulgar, animated by a lively intelligence.

Oh, and Sir David Hare draws on local traditions that date back to John McGrath...

Not often I can say this Alison, but BULL SHIT!

I reckon the APG would be as appalled by this, their so-called progeny, as McGrath would be by Hare.

Alison Croggon said...

And why is it bullshit, Mr Boyd? The APG's dalliance with commedia dell'arte derives from workshops George Ogilvie did with Graham Blundell during an early MTC production (before it was the MTC), which Blundell then took back to the APG. And which, according to a horse's mouth who was on the scene, were crucial in how they developed their own style physical theatre and clowning and rough theatre. Seems an absolutely obvious connection to me. To point this out doesn't mean that this show is doing the same thing as the APG. That was the '70s and this is 2008.

Anonymous said...

There have been so many mutations (and heart transplants) between the APG and the Malthouse that drawing a connection is no more helpful (or meaningful) than observing that Joanna Murray-Smith's feminism has 97% DNA in common with, oh, Mary Daly's say.

The differences are a million times greater than the similarities.


Alison Croggon said...

Dear Chris (I mean, MPM)...maybe you should just go back and read again what I actually wrote...