|Sketches by Anna Cordingley|
|L to R: Robert Jago (Cléante), Kate Mulvaney Dorine), Helen Dallimore (Elmire), Charlie Garber (Damis), Geraldine Hakewill (Mariane), Jennifer Hagan (Madame Pernelle)|
|Sean O'Shea (Orgon), Geraldine Hakewill (Mariane), Kate Mulvaney (Dorine)|
Tartuffe, the Hypocrite by Molière. A new version by Justin Fleming, directed by Peter Evans. Designer: Anna Cordingley; Lighting: Paul Jackson; Composer: Kelly Ryall; Movement: Scott Witt. Bell Shakespeare, Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, July 26 – August 23, 2014.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
In the light of recent developments, where a politician appears to have special relations with Chaser dogs, cartoons are defended by Leaks and Popes, and bigots are politically correct (or very nearly), Molière’s introduction to his 1664-69 play Tartuffe should bring a smile to all our two-faces: If the function of comedy is to correct men’s vices, I do not see why any should be exempt... It is a vigorous blow to vices to expose them to public laughter.
The very public laughter from the mixed matinee audience when I saw the show, in the company of a never cross section of a model modern audience – from teenage school groups to staid ancients like me – proved the author’s point magnificently. But when you consider that Molière’s central character appears as a pillar of the Church, deliberately using his position for his own personal satisfaction – sexual and financial – then it may not be long before we see writer Justin Fleming, director Peter Evans and even the institution of Bell Shakespeare itself brought before a certain Royal Commission for Institutional Perversion of Youth.
After all, that’s what happened to Molière, to quote from Melissa Lesnie’s most informative article published in the Program: By the time the final, heavily revised version of Molière’s most controversial comédie made it to the boards in 1669, the playwright’s name would be forever tied up with Tartuffe’s, linked with anti-clerical sentiment and what was deemed morally depraved theatre. Schoolgirls and schoolboys in Catholic school uniforms (and some were there on Wednesday) beware: Fleming has written a new version which seems to me to reinstate everything sexual that the original author was forced to ‘heavily revise’. It is not Tartuffe’s financial greed and gluttony which makes the play salacious and open to Church attack. It’s his twisted and devious sexual demands that threaten his author.
Fleming, Evans and Bell are as brave in modern times as Molière was in his. Whereas, Lesnie writes Paradoxically, in making the play more acceptable to religious dévots, Molière managed to transform it into a reactionary critique not only of hyprocisy, but also of the very censorship to which it was subjected, the Bell Shakespeare team have allowed themselves every modern licence, to the point where some of those schoolgirls’ reactions behind me made it very clear that they expected, excited in their trepidation, that Tartuffe (Leon Ford) would actually expose Elmire’s private parts in the scene of his seduction exposé. Fortunately Helen Dallimore maintained her privacy, in a very funny scene where she, now hidden from the audience on a huge turned-around sofa, apparently with no chance of escaping Tartuffe as Ford dropped his daks and leapt with amazing athleticism over the sofa’s back ... only to arise face to face with Orgon, Elmire’s husband, who is now finally disabused of Tartuffe’s manipulative ‘humility’.
It may be an old slapstick device, but it works.
It is, of course, the Maid Dorine, inevitably pronounced in Australian as ‘Doreen’, with the blunt wit of the old commedia traditional servant, who runs rings around the stupidities of the upper-class men. Here’s her description of Tartuffe:
True, it is something altogether scandalous
A stranger in the house with no idea how to handle us;
He arrives with no shoes, his clothes not worth a cracker,
No sooner in the door, than he starts to wag his clacker.
At once you can see what Fleming is doing – taking the original French and turning it into racy rhyming English. Kate Mulvaney’s Dorine has a complete set of movement and gestures to go with her words that turns her into a very funny annoying bane of Sean O’Shea’s Orgon’s life, as he does all he can to maintain control of his wayward family. But Dorine is not just wonderfully funny: without her perspicacity, Tartuffe would have had his way without real opposition.
Yet Fleming is actually doing far more with the language than meets the ear and eye. He’s a serious classics academic, no less. (He will now sue me under Section 18C for ‘insulting’ him!) But there it is: the rhyming patterns are as complex as anything Shakespeare wrote, while the choice of words is as bawdy as in Aristophenes’ Lysistrata. I think, in precise Australian (watch for the one about a man bringing his sausage, but the woman doesn’t have to cook his steak) Fleming has done what Molière would be proud of: shown that Tartuffe, written by a rouseabout bloke of the theatre, is a work of art of classic proportions, and an example to us all.
Everybody, from Jennifer Hagan’s overbearing grandmother figure as Madame Pernelle to the teenage lovers Mariane (Geraldine Hakewill) and Valère (Tom Hobbs) have the timing and the precision of movement and rhythm exactly right for a true comédie.
Finally, indeed at the very end, when it seems that Orgon has no way to recover his property from the nefarious Tartuffe (whose name, so Melissa Lesnie tells us, is derived from the Italian word for ‘that pungent fungus buried deep in the ground’: a truffle), Fleming comes up with his cleverest twist. A figure rises from the depths to explain that only one person has the power to save Orgon, despite his foolishness. In the original play, this figure is an official of the king, the name of whom is not mentioned but was Louis XIV. It must have galled Molière to conclude his play by giving the king not only a sense of morality but also the ultimate say (unless he hoped his audience would see through his rigidly smiling mask to the reality of political power).
Referring to Tartuffe the official says:
Ce monarque, en un mot, a vers vous détesté
Sa lâche ingratitude et sa déloyauté
In Fleming’s version, it is not an autocratic king, however morally inclined, but the Author himself – also not named, but in other words Molière – who cannot allow perfidy to win the day. What lesson indeed would we learn if hypocrisy rules? So, it is the Author who reveals Tartuffe’s criminal past, who is horrified at his ingratitude and disloyalty, who forgives Orgon for his ineptitude, and tears up the contract he had signed passing all his estate over to Tartuffe, and sends Tartuffe and his odious agent down into what looks like a fiery hell.
The family – now rather like Pirandello’s six characters having found their author – are grateful not to the temporal power of a monarch but for the omnipotence of the artist and the power of art.
A great ending to a magnificent comedy.
|Robert Jago, Charlie Garber, Geraldine Hakewill, Helen Dallimore, Kate Mulvaney|
|Leon Ford (Tartuffe), Helen Dallimore (Elmire)|
|"Jesus wants to be your friend"|
Kate Mulvaney, Geraldine Hakewill, Tom Hobbs, Sean O'Shea, Helen Dallimore, Jennifer Hagan, Robert Jago