Theatre Review: Tartuffe, Theatre Royal Haymarket

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Murder Express - Credit: Archant

David Winskill struggles with a contemporary update of Moliere’s comedy in both English and 17th Century French




Moliere is often described as the French Shakespeare. His celebrated comedy Tartuffe was banned several times because of its supposed attack on the hypocrisy of the church.

Christopher Hampton and director Gerald Garutti have transposed the work to contemporary LA where the rich and successful Orgon (egged on by his mother) is under the spell of evangelical snake-oil salesman Tartuffe (played with a sinister, oleaginous Southern civility by the terrific Paul Anderson).

The stage at the gilded Theatre Royal Haymarket has been dressed as a rich man’s mansion complete with Hockney-blue moat. Orgon’s family wear the dress-down casual of the super rich, and party as the super rich do.

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Alarm bells ring when dad brings home Tartuffe: at once they can see through the hypocrisy of the grubby little preacher.

Their fears are realised when Orgon tries to marry his daughter Marianne to Tartuffe and then, recklessly, assigns him his entire fortune.

Orgon’s wife Elmire (the superb Audrey Fleurot) hatches a cunning plan to expose Tartuffe for the scoundrel he is and (incomprehensibly) following an intervention from the highest level of American government, Tartuffe is trumped at his own game.

The production is unusual in being performed both in both English and Moliere’s French. Help is at hand for the linguistically challenged with the provision of three large surtitle screens – which keep perfect pace with the lines.

But the French dialogue is so quick-fire that it’s impossible to follow what is happening on stage and read the text.

You feel you are always running to catch up.

There were some genuinely funny moments but, like glace cherries in a meanly fruited gateau, too few to savour.

The actors, though excellent, seemed to struggle with the uneven pace and the awkward juxtaposition of seventeenth century dodecasyllabic Alexandrine verse with modern idioms.

The play has a lot to say about a needy ruling class and reliance on false prophets, but the gratuitous references to Trump were just lazy.

This is one for hard-core Moliere enthusiasts.