Tartuffe, or The Impostor, or The Hypocrite, first performed in 1664, is one of the most famous theatrical comedies by Molière. The characters of Tartuffe, Elmire, and Orgon are considered among the greatest classical theatre roles
In a vibrant and contemporary version by John Donnelly, with Dennis O’Hare as the lead, the play comes to The National Theatre: Lyttleton. Boisterous and spirited with some smart adaptations, this Tartuffe has a compelling modern twist.
Set in a glamorous home in Highgate, Tartuffe takes satirical jabs at the North London elite, screen-addicted millennials, and aspiring aristocratic artists as Orgon (Kevin Doyle) is seduced by Tartuffe’s (O’Hare) generic ‘spiritual’ teachings.
Designer Robert Jones’s set sparkles lavishly and garishly with a massive gold statue of Michelangelo’s David and a portrait of Saint Sebastian on the navy painted wall. The main room is complete with numerous hiding places that director Blanche McIntyre uses as surprise entrances and hideaways!
Donnelly and O’Hare subvert the conventional interpretation of Tartuffe as an obvious antagonist. While he unquestionably acts as Orgon’s spiritual guide, O’Hare’s Tartuffe buys into his teachings partially due to Orgon’s own zeal.
O’Hare is physically brilliant and very funny, a new-age hippy type with a top knot, one minute preaching Namaste and the next coming on to Orgon’s wife. He’s a wriggling, slippery character, a sleazy parasite on the family but one you cannot take your eyes off, and in a shrewd move his Tartuffe is not the most outrageous character onstage.
Particularly well done are the scenes between Doyle and Kitty Archer as Orgon’s daughter Mariane. Arranged marriage is twisted into a relatable millennial dependency on parents, both actors stirring up antagonism between young and old. In Mariane we see the ditzy money-grabbing youth, as privileged financially as she is in her shallow feminism. Yet there’s a helpless naivety too, while Orgon is an inept madman who frustratingly cannot be overruled. Their scenes, though funny, are a fair summation of today’s generational tension.
Donnelly’s production makes it clear that in this world, hypocrisy does not start or end with Tartuffe. Orgon’s wife Ermine, played by Olivia Williams, is nicely modernised. Williams is a joy as Elmire, as she wrestles with Tartuffe, elegant hair awry, to prove his guilt to her slow-on-the-uptake husband. There is strong support elsewhere too, not least from Susan Engel as Orgon’s querulous, opinionated mother and Kathy Kiera Clarke is the voice of reason as the fierce Dorine, and Geoffrey Lumb’s Valere is a delightfully inept revolutionary poet.
In the final scenes, though, the rug is pulled from beneath us. Donnelly’s script turns to proselytising rhyming couplets as justice is served – not against Orgon and the corrupt government, but against Tartuffe. As order is restored, the cast turn to the audience accusingly and the stage tilts threateningly towards us, as if we had a hand in this deceit.
Ultimately Donnelly’s Tartuffe is a modern day satire not about religious pietism, but about how entrenched the layers of hypocrisy are within the larger institution of the country.
For this performance we also tried out the Smart Caption Glasses designed and manufactured by Epson If you are deaf or hard of hearing going to the theatre can be an almost impossible task. Infrared induction loops can often amplify the noises you don’t want to hear, drowning out the actors, and caption screens are often set to the side of the stage, meaning you miss half of the performance. These services aren’t always available either, with only around four per cent of productions available to watch with things like smart captions. That’s why it’s fabulous that The National is providing smart caption glasses for their shows.
The glasses look a bit like Google glasses and give the wearer the opportunity to see scrolling text while watching the stage. As you move your head to look at the actors the text goes with you and can also be worn if you already wear glasses. This is a great way to transform theatre and make it more accessible. When booking your ticket you can book the glasses at the same time. The helpful staff also helps set the glasses up (there is a video tutorial available online and on the glasses too) and the team are there during the interval for any further help required, we were highly impressed.
Tartuffe by Molière in a new version by John Donnelly ends 30 April 2019. For tickets see online.
Make sure you check online for further details on the Smart Caption Glasses.