Tartuffe at the National Theatre review *****

Tartuffe: The Imposter

National Theatre Lyttleton, 24th April 2019

Top Girls. Downstate. Small Island. Follies which I can vouch for from the first run. And now this Tartuffe. All superb. If the NT is still going through a dodgy patch artistically then f*ck knows how good it is going to be when it gets back on track. This punter for one is very happy. And having paid £15 for this, as well as Small Island, and just a few notes more for Downstate, combined this has to represent just about the best bullseye the Tourist has ever spent.

For those of you Londoners, (I accept that for those outside the capital the N in NT may be a source of frustration despite the NT Live and touring initiatives), who whinge about not being able to get to see the NT “sold-out” productions I say the following. Sign up. Watch the updates. Book early. And take a risk. There will always be a few hot playwrights or big name actor productions where the members will beat you to it, but generally you will be OK. Risk a few quid. Worst case if your busy social life means when the date looms you are positively FOMO’d then, for a couple of quid, you can get credit for next time. And, if it does turn out to be sh*te, think of it as a necessary donation to maintain society’s cultural fabric. Any one of these recent productions was still eminently, and cheaply, bookable just a few weeks in advance. If you wait for reviews and chase the big hits you’ll end up paying twice the price in some cramped West End mausoleum. Here endeth the lesson.

Until now I hadn’t seen a convincing adaptation of Tartuffe or, frankly, any of Moliere’s plays. Started too late in my learning and maybe just unlucky. Played with too much fidelity to the “original” conception and it’s just unfunny caricature. Depart too far from the central hypothesis of hypocrisy, especially religious, or cram to much in in a bid for relevance and it can become chaotic or risibly naive. Keith A Comedy?, Patrick Marmion’s take at the Arcola recently smacked of the latter. As for the recent RSC Tartuffe, no comment. Sounded interesting but just a bit too far for the Tourist to go to knacker his back again in the Swan.

For this version, at the time of booking, I didn’t know the cast and, in any event, had never see anything by our Tartuffe here, Dennis O’Hare. Translator/adaptor John Donnelly was also new to me. Forget actors. I can’t stress enough how important the role of the adaptor is to making ye olde theatre work for modern, attention deficit audiences. But, as I say, in this case, no form guide. So that just left director Blanche McIntyre as the only confirmed draw. That was enough however. Ms McIntyre was the canny brains behind the RSC’s 2017 Titus Andronicus with David Troughton in the lead and The Writer, Ella Hickson’s brilliant feminist discourse at the Almeida last year. Next up she will tackle Bartholomew Fair at the Sam Wanamaker.

What can I say? Result. John Donnelly and Blanche McIntyre have created a Tartuffe who genuinely appears to believe his own hype and an Orgon (Kevin Doyle) who desperately wants his sins expiated. He is a speculator who has made a fortune trading around some dodgy war time activity facilitated by the government. (Think big oil, Cheney and Iraq if you find this too hard to believe). He is holed up with family, and Tartuffe himself, in his hyper-designed Highgate palace, Robert Jones’s set offering a nod to French baroque routed through World of Interiors.

Dennis O’Hare’s Tartuffe comes with prayer beads, topknot, bizarre South American accent and compromised personal hygiene. His spiritual philosophising veers from trite to acute. His religion is eclectic but filled with Goop-y self-help, lifestyle, homilies. Kevin Doyle’s agitated Organ believes the rest of his family sees his family’s antipathy to Tartuffe’s wisdom as reflecting their selfish claims on him and his wealth. So far, so recognisable. The difference here is that our shaman Tartuffe might just be right rather than the pious Christian hypocrite of most interpretations. And Orgon might just be justified in ridding himself of his ill-gotten gains and the guilt that comes with it to try to live a simpler life, albeit steeped in nostalgia. And there is a hint of something more like love in their complex relationship. (Maybe the pink and green neon St Sebastian on the back wall had something to say about this?)

From this starting point Mr Donnelly builds a consistent thesis all the way through to the expeditious deus ex machina which concludes the business. Here Orgon is saved from Tartuffe’s disclosure because the government doesn’t want its illegal war-time activities disclosed. Tartuffe is still the vehicle for much comedy but his genuine belief in his mission shifts the focus of the play into more satirical territory, closer to Moliere’s original intention. The original was quickly banned, not because Louis XIV, (and the public by all accounts), didn’t love it but because the Church and Aristocracy couldn’t stomach the p*ss taking.

The rhyming couplets, at least until the end, are abandoned which allows the retributive message, the farce in the plot, the fine jokes (Spymonkey’s Toby Park was involved) and the characters, (with their roots in the stock characters of Roman comedy), to emerge with more than usual clarity. Money makes their worlds go around and Orgon is the ATM. Kitty Archer, (who stood out in her debut One for Sorrow at the Royal Court), as daughter Marianne is a spoilt brat, but painfully aware of it, as she debates the forced marriage to Tartuffe per Daddy’s demands, or pauperdom with posh “street poet” boyfriend Valere, (some cracking lines for Geoffrey Lumb – “rhyme is a bourgeois concept”). Susan Engel does a fine turn as Orgon’s dismissive mother Pernelle who even, at one point, starts to fall for Tartuffe’s logic. Olivia Williams as wife Elmire shines in the “seduction” scene, here showing the wrong done to women by being used as sexual pawns in male games. Hari Dhillon’s Cleante and Kathy Kiera Clarke as Dorinne both offer a knowing, though still selfish, take on the action. Enyi Okoronkwo’s doltish son Damis gets some good laughs out of being a few lines off the pace.

I can see why some might want their Tartuffe to be lighter and less didactic. See the pic above. More comedy less message. Tough. There’ll probably be the same bunch who can’t contemplate Shakespeare without doublets. The reason theatre lives is because it changes as we do. And Tartuffe is a classic because it can speak to all times. This certainly did.