Monday, November 14, 2016


Tartuffe by Moliere. 

Adapted by Phillip Kavanagh. Directed by Chris Drummond,  State Theatre Company of South Australia and Brink Productions. Dunstan Playhouse. Adelaide Festival Centre. November 4 – 20 2016.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Nathan O'Keefe is Tartuffe. Photo by Kate Pardey

Comedy, farce or tragicomedy? Director Chris Drummond’s slick, snappy and wickedly witty production of Moliere’s Tartuffe for Brink Productions and the State Theatre Company of South Australia is a triumphant display of all three. Too often, Moliere’s biting satires are played for laughs, presenting a foolish family, subjected to the sycophantic whims of the sanctimonious hypocrite, Tartuffe.  The danger is that it too swiftly slides into silliness, too easily dismissed as the foolish carryings-on of ridiculous characters . It is only when this bitter tale of Orgon’s religious obsession and devotion to the manipulative Tartuffe against the suspicions and advice of the family members becomes a force for destruction that the true power of Moliere’s cautionary tragicomedy is revealed.
No student of Moliere nor any devotee of his razor sharp analysis of the human condition should miss Drummond’s production, not because it is a traditional representation of the seventeenth century  French comedy but because it sparkles with contemporary relevance. As Dorine (Jacqui Phillips) says at the start of the production “It’s not even in rhyme”. Phillip Kavanagh’s adaptation adheres to the spirit of Moliere’s text in translation, but he imbues Moliere’s characters with a contemporary immediacy and truth that does not belittle Moliere’s theme but hurls it forcefully and wittily into the twenty-first century.  Kavanagh’s translation and adaptation, whether crass, vulgar, sinister or snide, wise, witty or wildly irrevent unveils comedy in behavior, farce in reaction and tragicomedy in consequence. An audience soon discovers the conflict caused by Orgon’s obsession with Tartuffe’s feigned piety, angrily denounced by Orgon’s son Damis (Guy O’Grady), his wife Elmire (Astrid Pill),his brother Cleante (Rory Walker), his daughter Mariane (Rachel Burke) and his housemaid Dorine. It is the apparent tragic consequence of Orgon’s fatal flaw that lends Moliere’s comedy a bitter gravity. In the face of ultimate loss of property, identity, family, status and human dignity a good and noble man is brought to the brink of ruin by his own foolishness and autocratic resistance to the voices of reason. Only the intervention of a wise and just monarch avoids the tragic consequence of misplaced trust and foolish devotion.

Tartuffe by Moliere.Photo by Kate Pardey
 Moliere’s comedic devices are given a breath of fresh air in Drummond’s imaginative interpretation. Actor, Nathan O’Keefe warms up the audience from the outset, introducing the play with vociferous complaint that his character, Tartuffe, should have to wait so long before an entrance, or that the deplorable state of arts funding has compelled the company to dragoon composer Alan John to take on the role of Orgon’s equally obsessed and religiously fanatical mother, Pernelle.  Before four grandiose chandeliers and on the white marble floor of Michael Hankins’ simple, yet elegant stage setting, O’Keefe sets the scene.
What makes this production so refreshing is its agility. While observing the influential conventions of Commedia, Drummond’s Tartuffe is liberating, spontaneous and extremely funny.  The recognizable  stock characters of the Commedia tradition are realized in Orgon’s Pantalone, Dorine’s Brighella, Antoine Jelk’s Valere and Burke’s Mariane  as the Lovers. O’Grady’s gawkish Damis strikes just the right note of comical bewilderment. Moliere affords his characters a complexity and sophistication beyond the limitations of improvisational Commedia. The lazzi, so superbly realized in Drummond’s stage business, are moments of magic during the seduction scene as Elmire desperately attempts to reveal to Orgon Tartuffe’s sinister duplicity. O’Keefe, dressed in the black garb of a Rasputin and the visage of a Christ slithers with lustful perfection.  This is a Tartuffe that oozes sleaze and sanctimonious hypocrisy.  O’Keefe’s performance is exceptional.  Paul Blackwell is excellent in the role of Orgon, endowing the character with absolute authenticity, cloaked in credibility and able to arouse sympathy when he finally admits to his blind folly. 
Nathan O' Keefe as Tartuffe. Photo by Kate Pardey

As the title character of Moliere’s irreverent attack on hypocrisy and religious obsession, Nathan O’Keefe is superb. With sycophantic guile he weasels his way into Orgon’s gullibility, while slithering with lustful design upon the  defenseless Elnire. Drummond makes the most of O’Keefe’s physical agility, as he does with other characters throughout the production. The stage is alive with momentum, revolving with manic mayhem about the resolute Orgon, played with perfectly timed conviction by Paul Blackwell..
Only Rory Walker’s Cleante fails to engage. His swallowed diction sacrifices the skillful delivery of his asinine advice in a performance more wooden than stoic, though pompous enough in its befuddlement. It is unfortunate that he only occasionally succeeds in delivering a dry punchline. Phillips’s rasping Strine, though true to class, also suffers from some incomprehensible delivery of dialogue and a tendency to caricature.  Dorine’s subtle art of influence is too simply overwhelmed by excess.
Rachel Burke as Mariane . Photo by Kate Pardey

Such criticism aside, there is a great deal to applaud in this fresh interpretation 0f Moliere’s comedy. Brink have grasped the tenor of our time and let the production make pertinent comment. Politicians are held up to ridicule in a final analysis of life’s absurdity. There are perfomances to admire, actions to applaud and characters to judge as Drummond’s direction and Kavanagh’s lively, contemporary adaptation make this a Tartuffe to enjoy and adulate.