Edinburgh Fringe 2009
James Wilkes’ witty and fast-flowing adaptation of ‘The Tartuffe’ takes place inside a shabby Victorian-style squat, in which the audience lounge around on mattresses and cushions. Meanwhile, a bunch of clowns, mimes and assorted performer-types whip through the story of the French comedy at an (almost literal) break-neck pace. It’s high-paced and they’re highly skilled, but sometimes I wished they’d pause for breath.
Last year, Belt Up wowed the International Festival people into giving them an award, and this year they’ve returned with one of last year’s hits in a new space. As a company, they’re very fond of mime and face-painting. So there’s a bunch of semi-chorus figures (all faux-naive) with faces utterly obscured behind paint – there’s a street statue, a mime, a Cabaret dancer, a stunt man, a Gypsy, a clown. They’re all people who perform, who present a false image of themselves.
That false front is a central concept in ‘The Tartuffe’ – especially in this meta-performance adaptation by James Wilkes – which crops up time and again. Tartuffe himself is a shambling holy man, looking a bit like a dodgy John Lennon in hippy-mode and acting rather more like Rasputin. He’s living in Orgon’s posh house under the pretence of being pious, but is actually a complete fraud and sponger, who turns nasty when threatened.
But Belt Up aren’t using Moliere’s concept. Oh no. This is much more original than even that – or so they’d have us think. Rich and wealthy Orgon has transformed into an actor past his heyday, surrounded by a clique of other performers. So their characters from Moliere are filtered through the newer facades. When the mime – Orgon’s brother-in-law – tries to help Orgon see through Tartuffe, he does so through mime. Later, the final conflict is carried out between the trained professionals and the untrained street artists.
The chorus is very much involved in that battle, and try to keep the audience feeling involved throughout too. As if it weren’t enough that we’re simply seated around the floor of the squat, we also have props thrown to us, costumes handed to us, lines assigned to us – not mention the dancing. Oh, and the blood. It’s typical of Belt Up’s work that they try to involve their audience as much as possible – we’re never allowed to drift off, nor may we forget that we’re watching a performance. So often do characters mutter stage directions or remind each other not to deviate from the script that we couldn’t possibly forget.
Again, the false facade. While going off on flights of fancy about not straying from the script – which seem to be entirely ad-libbed – Belt Up are staying precisely on the script. The show is packed with knowing winks to the idea of it all being a performance – Orgon even screams “Where’s the fourth wall? There is no walls!” near the start.
Therein lies the piece’s main weakness. Vocality. The writing and performance are solid, strong, funny. Energetic and witty, in fact. But the cast are all highly excitable – partly the fault of the fact that they’re playing such childish figures – and their vocal range is stretched too high. Too high a proportion of lines are lost in incomprehensible squeals.
If they can rein in the hysterics a little, this could – and will – be another gem of a Fringe show.