Gilman US Play Tartuffe
Molière wrote his masterpiece, Tartuffe, in 1669 and performed the play with his company for Louis XIV at Versailles, but his theatre grew out of a much older acting tradition. Before coming to Paris, Molière had spent his career traveling from town to town, performing improvisational comedy inspired by the commedia dell’arte. The actors would set up in the town square and improvise knockabout farces based on stock characters that have existed since Roman times.
Typically, a beautiful ingénue (or young wife) is blocked from marrying a handsome soldier by an aging father (or husband), but a crafty servant devises a plan to let nature have its way…. Molière’s genius was to contrive surprising variations on these scenes and then provide his actors with matchless dialogue.
In Tartuffe, Molière takes stock situations and stands them on their head: it is the aging husband this time who has been charmed by a devious charlatan, and his young wife, aided by a crafty servant, must rescue her husband from ruin by proving her faithfulness. In so doing, Molière demonstrates keen insight into the emotional dynamics of families as they face life’s milestones together. The result is peerless theatre which has delighted actors and audiences ever since. I hope you enjoy tonight’s performance of Tartuffe!
Thursday 7th November 2013
GORDON PARSONS enjoys an update of Molière’s satire on pseudo religiosity
Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Roxana Silbert, Birmingham Rep’s new artistic director in its centenary year, has chosen this Molière classic as her inaugural production in the newly refurbished theatre.
Its translator Chris Campbell tells us in the programme that the play is all about faith, betrayal and belief. But in reality, speaking to us today over three-and-a-half centuries, Tartuffe is very much a play which unerringly targets religious hypocrisy.
Molière and his troupe of touring actors established themselves in Paris in 1658 and, despite royal approval of their court performances, he soon found increasing opposition from the dominant Catholic establishment. This came to a head when these power mongers recognised themselves in the playwright-actor’s depiction of their pharisaical nature in the comic masterpiece which is Tartuffe.
Molière’s portrayal of the head of a bourgeois family naively falling under the influence of a piously oily deceiver and who, rejecting all the impassioned advice from wife and children, proposes not only to marry his daughter to the interloper but to make him his heir, was too near the knuckle for those who used religion as a pathway to power and wealth.
The fact that the playwright, coming from a commedia dell’arte tradition, used pantomime stock characters and situations and directed his attack through knockabout comedy and even farce if anything exacerbated his opponents’ discomfort and only made matters worse. Laughter is a powerful weapon of censure.
Silbert’s sparklingly infectious production captures the essence of Molière’s work, which enjoys its own theatricality. Actors engage with the audience, reminding us that we could almost be watching a play.
Mark Williams’s Tartuffe plays the smugly benign confidence trickster like some second-division Rasputin as he manipulates his victim, Paul Hunter’s zanily gullible Orgon.
A fraught situation comes to a hilarious climax when the latter’s wife, Sian Brook’s Elmire, forces her credulous husband to hide under a table to observe his hypocritical mentor’s attempts to seduce her and finally recognise the monster he has harboured.
In a cast finding their way into the requisite ensemble speed of playing and rhythm of farce, those of a certain age will recognise Janice Connolly‘s Mrs Pernelle, Orgon’s moralising harridan mother. It’s a marvellous take on the right-wing anti-TV “porn” campaigner Mary Whitehouse a generation ago, who’s barking mad in more ways than one.
Sterling support comes too in the shape of Ayesha Antoine‘s Dorine, a spitfire of a maid with all the answers.
If Tartuffe can no longer raise the hackles of the devoutly religious, Chris Campbell’s free translation makes sure it hits current targets.
Where Molière’s Tartuffe gets his comeuppance when out of the blue the king intervenes, here Campbell replaces this royal rabbit from the hat with governmental interference. The epilogue reassures us all that along with our democratic masters “our bankers, our police and our free press combine to form a triple safety net for all.”
Even more appropriately this 2013 Tartuffe, unlike his original who is carted off to jail, slips away during the family’s celebrations and gives us all a two-fingered farewell as he does so.
Runs until November 18. Box office: (0121) 236-4455