Last Updated on 1st June 2018
Julian Eaves review Moliere’s Tartuffe now playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Theatre Royal Haymarket
29th May 2018
Let’s parler Moliere! (As Punch might have put it…) Well, this is a charming and rather wonderful oddity, rocking up at the Haymarket, in a kind of bohemian broadside against Brexiteer Isolationism and Fogeyish Philistinism: a kind of mash up of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin’s fave – and last – opus, with shards of Christopher Hampton’s bracing translation shaken into the franglaisian mix, directed with unfussy gusto by Gerald Garruti. One minute people are talking in genuine Alexandrines, the next…. in Hamptonesque translated verse. Surtitle screens litter the auditorium, for those who can keep up with the speed of the repartee – and I would like to know who can. Meanwhile, there is much simple fun to be had from just gawping at the bi-lingual spectacle, and letting it wash over you. With – some – French, you can catch a fair bit of what is being talked about, and the occasional glance at the surtitles might be sufficient just to keep you on track with developments in the plot, such as it is. The actors switch backwards and forwards between languages with almost indististinguishable ease: a few of them get stuck into first language accents, but most are near as dammit fluent in both, making for a wonderfully disconcerting effect: how can you be sure of what you are hearing – are people really what they say they are? And that, dear amis, is the whole point of this drama, is it not?
The set up in this play is incredibly simple, and very, very clear. The nouveau haute-bourgeois Orgon (Sebastian Roche, in grossly smug form as the arch pretender to a level of cultivation that he does really not merit) believes that what his sleek, minimalist home, tres Philippe Starck (thanks to Andrew D Edwards, Designer), lacks is the elevating presence of a mystical man of the spirit, a guru, a…. Tartuffe, who duly turns up and fills this aching hole with his very Boudu, sauve des eaux-act, in the contrasting person of Paul Anderson’s bearded American conman-cum-common thief. Orgon’s household are charming, and well bred, and well dressed, and full of their own self-satisfaction, and from the outset we rather want to see Tartuffe succeed in taking over – and he does – and we almost want him to triumph, too, even at the awful cost he then imposes.
The artful manner in which Moliere writes – and which Hampton so perfectly understands and recreates for us in English – is that his moral transgressions are always phrased in such a manner that makes their dangerous import actually arise out of our interpretation of them: he mostly speaks in a bland, quasi-obsequious manner that does everything to dislocate his will from any deliberate, open guilt in the direction his actions tend towards, making the recipient of his evil attentions the apparent motor generating them. Even thought the transitions between languages aren’t always as smooth or as logical as they might be, this is ingenious, and deeply troubling. The final seduction scene of Orgon’s vain, scheming wife, Elmire (Audrey Fleurot, all soigne couture and perfect hair), is the zenith of this approach, as well as the play’s moral nadir: and no wonder the work was banned by the French authorities. Here, Moliere all but tramples accepted social standards underfoot, while simultaneously pointing out that it is others – and not he – who seek to assault them. The absolute coup-de-grace is then delivered in the arrival of what seems to be a kind of anti-deus (a diabolus?) ex machina: Loyal, played with Sam Shepherd-like scariness by John Faulkner. This scene still shocks us bolt upright in our comfortable seats, terrified at the ease with which we have been made complicit in urging on the victory of such a mountebank, of someone whose chief aim is to overturn everything we, respectable theatregoers, hold sacred: money, property, hierarchy, family, etc.
It is a kind miracle of Moliere not to leave things at that, and a rather artificial one, too. The finale is then not so much a conclusion as a postponement of some inevitable catastrophe, put off for another day (or century – perhaps our own?). Hampton saves us some of his funniest jokes – and most up-to-date ones, in a script that he first worked on many years ago – for the closing moments of the drama. It’s all great fun and much enjoyed by the personnes de qualite who turned up for the press night. How it will play with the general public is anyone’s guess. We shall have to see. In the meantime, if you want to enjoy a really peachy fun event of remarkable daring and panache, you will not find a more superior one than this in a fair while, I shouldn’t wonder. I ended up really loving being in the company of such delightful actors as Annick Le Goff’s Madame Pernelle, George Blagden’s Damis, Olivia Ross’ Mariane, Jaz Deol’s Valere, Vincent Winterhalter’s Cleante, Claude Perron’s Dorine, Sophie Duez’s Beggar, Zachary Fall’s Officer, Nadia Cavelle Flipote and Paikan Garutti’s Laurent. In this world, so gracious, lit also by Paul Anderson, and with a lush soundscape by David Gregory (composer, Laurent Petitgrand), what lovely neighbours they would make. So entertaining. But I wouldn’t want to be them.