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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Blanche McIntyre’s tight direction of John Donnelly’s close version of Tartuffe at the National’s Lyttelton is deigned by Robert Jones who also designs costumes, lit by Oliver Fenwick, with composition and sound by Ben and Max Ringham. Toby Park is physical comedy director. Till April 30th.



Tartuffe’s extremity is difficult to recapture from the 1660s: religious hypocrisy ebbs and flows. Indeed Restoration England wouldn’t have felt the stings half so much and it was other Moliere plays – like The Misanthrope – that playwrights like Wycherley latched on to, in The Plain Dealer. So how does this play triumph nearly every time?


The RSC’s edgy brilliance pushed contemporary fundamentalism in its recent Tartuffe, though the coup of John Donnelly’s version at the National’s Lyttelton lies in diffusing the villainy through a secular UK, a year or two into the future.


Director Blanche McIntyre’s collaboration with Toby Park’s physical comedy direction ensures slapstick underscores all the original farce. If that suggests Donnelly merely creates a loose ‘version’ then it’s further testament to him that he follows Moliere extremely closely. At the moment they first talk Denis O’Hare’s Tartuffe instructs Kathy Kiera Clarke’s sane housekeeper Dorine to cover up her cleavage, just as in Moliere. There’s numerous precise parallels where Donnelly reaffirms Moliere’s supremacy, and it’s the riffs from these that spin out a compelling difference.


‘We’re all Tartuffes now’ Tartuffe ends in a very different place. The hypocrisy isn’t religious, though religion plays a part. Donnelly links this straight to contemporary materialism, and the self-deluding that infects all of us.


Imagine the easily-duped Orgon (here a haplessly thwarted Kevin Doyle) picking up a kind of Carlos Castanada character, a South American mystic, Shaman Guevara, on the South Bank, just outside the National. Now. Why? We’re not told by Moliere. Donnelly suggests it’s Orgon’s guilt as his extreme wealth, ill-gotten ‘by these late wars’. In Moliere that’s historical. Here it suggests the incredible civil unrest about to be unleashed in the wake of Brexit. And just to underline our complicity, O’Hare walks about flourishing blanched daffodils and handing them to the audience as a naked figure shoots past.


This is all as Robert Jones’ single set – initially screened by a Highgate frontage – dissolves to the turquoise walls of a consciously grand drawing room with sash windows stage left, a fireplace opposite that erupts comically just once and… collectable modern art: one picture indeed changing its neon scheme every so often. And a parquet floor we see at a revealing moment. This place drips conspicuous. Plush leather sofas are trammelled only by a door behind opening onto cadmium splashes of modern art in a hall. Jones delights in sometimes fantastical costumery too. Lit by Oliver Fenwick, with composition and sound by Ben and Max Ringham, everything’s pointed up a notch higher than naturalism.


There’s still then insinuation of a religious something into a household he then proceeds to plunder and – thwarted in his sexual advances to virtuous wife Elmire (Olivia Williams) – eventually evicts its rightful owners, citing Orgon’s perfidy in those late wars. Insider dealing, shorting the pound perhaps, and much worse, seem hardly the stuff of treachery till we remember how indeed they’ve bankrupted the country, and a UK during civil unrest would be pretty unforgiving. Orgon’s attempts to marry off daughter Mariane to Tartuffe, her lover Valere (here a champagne socialist ‘poet’) and cause her hothead brother Damis to be disinherited excite most remonstrance: Elmire’s brother Cleante and Dorine form an axis of sanity, or is it in part the status quo?


This Tartuffe though intrigues Hari Dhillon’s rational Cleante – whose own stature rather grows in this version. He divines Tartuffe really does believe his own confirmation bias, is as deluded perhaps as every other self-confirming capitalist. Having shared a glass with him, he admits he ‘gets under my skin’ and alter he asks several times as denouement approaches ‘Is this legal?’ Remarkably, he speaks up for Tartuffe. It’s the richest re-reading of this character I’ve come across.


Here O’Hare’s lascivious desires mark the only hypocrisy in that he clearly disdains Orgon and thinks he can win over long-suffering Elmire from him. There’s one hitch. The great seduction attempt, with Orgon being instructed to emerge at Elmire’s warning cough – he doesn’t take the cue till his wife’s nearly raped – should be the climax. Williams – here a slinky American – responds to her brother’s exculpation of her. She ripostes some of her friends are lovers. and laments the passionate man she married. ‘I miss him.’ Williams, who starts as privileged and brittle certainly exudes a winning kind of regret, but the outrageousness of her seduction is blunted by her nonchalant admission of having enjoyed a smorgasbord of adultery. Convincingly contemporary, but blunting the satire. It’s a superbly poised sashay between sense and sensibility.


O’Hare’s physicality gets most workout when up against Doyle, whether the faint homoerotic tinge between them,, the two praying, the range of responses O’Hare makes to an ever-more extravagant Doyle stretches the folie-a-deux between them till you can’t believe it won’t snap.


There’s a contemporary analogue too in suggesting children of the wealthy are now more shackled than at any time over the past century, to their parents’ Trustafarian arrangements. Thus they’re dependant on their parents – even for their roof, rent and house prices bing what they are and arranged marriages aren’t entirely to be laughed off. Enyi Okoronkwo’s Damis feels it. Even more, his sister.


Kitty Archer’s Mariane troughed in her entitlement makes a winningly nauseous princess, but who adds ‘I might be stupid but I’m not thick’ and goaded on by Dorine to give an impassioned speech to her father against forced marriage convinces you of the opposite – till she admits she’ll be forced to – work with Medicin sans frontieres.


Her lover Valere, Geoffrey Lumb, enjoys hidden shallows and even reserves of a non-personal kind as a wannabe rich boy slumming as a rapper. ‘Rhyme’s a bourgeois construct’ he sips every socialist champagne going, a register of foppery till he’s called on to be a little more.


Clarke’s even greater sanity as Dorine gets most of the laughs, just as Susan Engel’s Pernelle – Orgon’s even more blind mother – comes on like walking stone guest of damnation, only to crumble. Matthew Duckett’s chipper Loyal, the serving officer, and Henry Everett’s Officer complete the main cast but an ensemble f eight more double as anything from menacing followers of Tartuffe, wandering in and out, to SWAT officers.


The conclusion though is anything but complacent. Our sympathies have been recruited in part for Moliere’s family, as is right. The conclusion though – all in witty rhyme, even the French Alexandrine of the original – inverts our sympathies and then delivers a tilt, as it were, which anyone seeing this will register like a huge inverted doff of the forelock. Despite some twitches that don’t quite come off, this is a major rereading for our distracted times. Prepare to be Tartuffed.