Tartuffe at the National Theatre
Moliere’s Tartuffe seems made for these times. Seductive charlatans, untouchable elites, the power of white male petulance: it’s always depressing when something that is literally more than 350 years old feels like it could have been written yesterday.
John Donnelly, obviously, is aware of all this. His adaptation, especially the far superior second half, is heavy – perhaps too heavy – with such perpetually zeitgeisty observations. Yet that’s just one part of the equation; the French classic is first and foremost a comedy, an aspect both the playwright and director Blanche McIntyre don’t have a particularly strong handle on, leading to an adaptation that is often loud, broad and pretty grating.
In the gaudy grandeur of Robert Jones’ peekaboo-laden mansion, Orgon (Kevin Doyle) is – like generations of men before him and no doubt plenty after – going through a midlife crisis. However, instead of a sports car and a sad affair, he’s opted for a live-in guru, employing the mishmash spiritualism of the titular Tartuffe (Denis O’Hare) as a guide to rein in his family’s decadence. With a nostalgic aggressiveness that contains a touch of Trump and a bit of Brexit, the businessmen tries to “reform” his supposed loved ones, all the while turning a blind eye to the machinations of his favourite philosophiser. You can guess how well that goes (or can you?).
Looking like a member of an LA commune, and sporting an incredibly muddled accent, for most of the production O’Hare’s Tartuffe is a cartoon, a lecherous little creep who nevertheless has some valid ideas about the redistribution of wealth. That he is seemingly being presented as a homeless Eastern European(ish) immigrant makes the sex pest-ness of the character extra unpleasant, a lazy stereotype whose grabby, groping lust for Elmire (Olivia Williams) is almost solely played for laughs. It’s a slightly disappointing turn from a great actor, one that shows signs of something more interesting when his righteous menace is played straight.
It’s a shame that the first half is such a screechy drag, as by and large the production really sharpens up after the interval. That’s maybe because Moliere’s play is building to such a fantastic close, a nasty slice of social satire that Donnelly and McIntyre perhaps over-egg by going one step further than the Frenchman, making a threat that manages to be both powerful – especially to the National Theatre’s typical audience – and patronising in message and execution alike.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Tartuffe is at the National Theatre from 9th February until 30th April 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.