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.

Mosquitoes at the National Theatre review ****

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Mosquitoes

National Theatre, 18th September 2017

Two sisters. Some sad stuff happens to them. Sciencey backdrop.

There you go. That’s Mosquitoes. Except that is isn’t. Lucy Kirkwood is not the type of playwright to let us off the hook that easily. She chucks a lot into this pot, brings it to the boil and what a tasty stew comes out after two and a half hours or so. It may be a bit rich but, ultimately, is easily digestible.

Mind you without the two Olivias, Colman and Williams, I doubt this would be half as good. You know the thing where you see a play, and the leads are so utterly convincing that you swear no one else could carry it off. Until you see someone else playing the part as well or better and you realise that the actors were just bloody good at their jobs. Well in this case I really doubt the performances could be bettered. They were the two sisters, Alice and Jenny, made more potent because they look like they could be sisters. (I know this leaves me caught in a simplistic, mimetic trap but in this case really helps that they looked the parts).

For at the heart of this play is the relationship between them. Whilst Ms Kirkwood is becoming ever more ambitious in her plays, and the themes that they engage with, what I love about her writing is the portrayal of the relationships. From the moment Alice feels Jenny’s pregnant bump to the last moment, having come full circle, to substantially the same scene, the sisters dilemmas felt vital and real. Indeed the metaphor of the circle is writ large in the play with the set comprising two giant circles, in part to represent Alice’s work as a scientist at CERN (the home of the Large Hadron Collider). The mosquitoes of the title also get a couple of metaphorical look-ins.

Along the way Ms Kirkwood asks some big questions. How should scientists, for whom science is defined by uncertainty, engage with us lay-people, who fervently need science to deliver certainty? What is the value of physics to society and where are we in reconciling the quantum mechanics of the very small with the forces that govern the universe and the physics of the very large? Where does “God” fit in? What will happen at the end of time? What is the nature of intelligence and how does this relate to emotion? What drives the “success” and “failure” of siblings within a family? Why has women’s contribution to science been so undervalued? How to balance work and family? Yet this all sits comfortably inside the boundaries of the drama – even when we go off the naturalistic piste.

I gather Olivia Colman is a bit ambivalent about the stage. She shouldn’t be. We see from her TV performances that she possesses an uncanny ability to create an intense emotional connection with us the audience, even when playing the most “ordinary” of characters. And she repeats the trick here. Jenny isn’t as bright as sister Alice, as Alice and mother Karen, pointedly, patronisingly and repeatedly remind her. And Jenny makes mistakes. Foregoing the MMR vaccine having swallowed the autism connection bullshit from the media, and in spite of Jenny’s protestations, has fatal consequences for her child. She is estranged from her husband. She sells dodgy insurance from a call centre. But when Alice’s life unravels, as her awkward son Luke is bullied and then absconds after engaging in some over-enthusiastic hacking, it is Jenny that Alice turns to. And it is Jenny that is dealing with Mum’s incipient dementia.

Olivia Colman plays Jenny with an earthy, matter-of-factness. There are a lot of laughs from her lines. She says what she feels and takes risks that Alice cannot or will not. The “emotional intelligence” yin to the “academic intelligence” yang of Olivia Williams’s Alice. Olivia WIlliams perfectly captures Alice’s emotional uncertainty. Luke’s father has left and her devotion to work leaves her son even more alone. The absent father pops up as The Boson, who is also our narrator for the big science lessons, a satisfying conceit. Paul Hilton, last seen by us as Peter Pan here at the National, grabs this role with both hands. I was also mightily impressed with Joseph Quinn as Luke, in a role with some similarities to the last time I saw him in Katherine Sopher’s devastating Wish List at the Royal Court. Amanda Boxer’s Karen is also beautifully realised: you can see echoes of her personality in her two daughters. Sofia Barclay, as Luke’s treacherous friend, and Yoli Fuller, as Alice’s beau, turn in skilful performances in vital roles.

Rufus Norris’s direction is as astute as ever. There is a lot packed in her, and even with the excellent performances and stunning set (courtesy of Katrina Lindsay), sound, lighting, music and video, this still required an expert hand at the tiller. If the director’s job is getting people on and off the stage to paraphrase Peter Brook, then Mr Norris can feel well satisfied, for on and off was perfectly executed.

So all in all a hit. I don’t know if it will pop up elsewhere but this is another production that gives the lie to the “NT has gone wobbly” nonsense meme. And, having covered the secrets of the universe and the mysteries of particle physics here, I have no idea where Lucy Kirkwood’s unbounded imagination will leap to next.