Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
What a bizarre venture Gérald Garutti’s production of Molière’s Tartuffe this is. Half French, half English, a half-baked Trump satire set in present day LA with a commandeering glass box which is theatre-ese for modern and European, it hasn’t convinced me that it’s the finest play in the French canon. Yet, for its sexy design, its novelty, and its ambition, it is oddly enjoyable.
Garutti’s decision to set the play in Los Angeles works: he has lampooned the heart of a materialistic, self-indulgent and debauched society. Orgon has become a French billionaire whose whole family has apparently migrated with him for a taste of Hollywood. Into that comes the charismatic, evangelical Tartuffe who has blinded Orgon to welcome him into his home. Soon enough, he is dressing like Tartuffe, besotted with his welfare and allowing him to walk over his family in the search for enlightenment. For Orgon and his mother, Tartuffe offers a way forward from the inanities of the modern world.
The problem is Christopher Hampton’s bilingual translation. He has given it, in his words, ‘the minimum of tweaks’. The play starts with a party; champagne bottles and drunken house guests roll around the stage. This is pretty much the only glimpse we get of this apparently selfish world until the fifth act, when the play bends over backward to become topical, with a US President character launching into a string of Trump references from Twitter to ‘pussy-grabbing’.
In aiming to emphasise the play’s endurance as well as put a contemporary spin on it, Hampton has achieved neither with any real verve and so doesn’t quite align with Garutti’s vision. What’s more is the difficulty surrounding the production being played in French and English. Thematically, I suppose it just about makes sense in that characters feel forced to speak in English in the presence of Tartuffe, such is his power (or ignorance). But other than that, it is at best literary showboating and at worst a distraction.
Of the performances, some of which are at odds with others, Paul Anderson’s Tartuffe is the most memorable. Roaming the stage barefoot and in linen clothes, he is a southern ersatz preacher, in a similar light to Michael Keaton in the ‘Wheels of Fortune’ episode of Frasier but even more shameful. His eccentricity turns Sebastian Roché’s seemingly rational Orgon to an obsequious smarm, flitting from one excess to the other. Hampton’s translation is at its best in a scene where Anderson is pronouncing his true self (‘C’est vrai, mon frère, je suis merchant. Un coupable’) only for Roché to bounce his self-condemnations back with compliments. Is the line between appearance and reality or truth and deception always so clear cut? Is Anderson’s Tartuffe purely a very talented fraud, or partly lost in his own invention? Audrey Fleurot is superb as Elmire. Walking the stage in Oscar ceremony dresses and striking red hair, she plays no fool to either Tartuffe or Orgon. Andrew D Edwards’ chic design – marble floors, swimming pools, glass, and wall to floor curtains – is aesthetically pleasing. Its coolness blends well with Paul Anderson’s lighting: a mix of purple and orange, aqua blue and flashes of red. Towards the climax, the box pushes forward with Tartuffe’s hands gently resting on the glass and the weight of the rest of the cast pushing it back. But if this is meant to represent the persecution of organised religion, as Garutti suggests, I’m not that convinced.
Tartuffe is a play all about seeming. Well this seems a missed opportunity. But nonetheless a watchable one.
Tartuffe is playing at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket until 28th July.Paul Anderson and Audrey Fleurot in Tartuffe. Credit: Helen Maybanks