Theatre Royal Haymarket, London – until 28 July 2018
My favourite character in Tartuffe is Madame Pernelle, the ferocious grandmère who whirls in at the top of act one and in a genius piece of exposition by Molière slags off every single member of the cast in a splendidly sarcastic series of putdowns, neatly defining their roles in the ensuing plot. That it’s done so stylishly by Annick Le Goff – elegantly dressed, coiffed and poised rather than the typical old gorgon – is a delight as she savours the bouncy iambic hexameters which drive the French script, and sets the tone for the play.
I also wished that when I’d studied it for ‘A’ level there had been accessible, modernised productions like this one – brightly lit and costumed, so I wouldn’t have had to shift in my seat in the gods at the Comédie Française, or later endure Antony Sher’s painful overacting at the RSC.
I am not knocking the idea of performing Tartuffe in a mixture of English and French apart from the fact Christopher Hampton’s translation was written 35 years ago and feels flat as a week-old crêpe. There’s no logic in who speaks which, and when you have an actress as soignée as Audrey Fleurot playing the wily and sophisticated Elmire in a succession of gorgeous gowns, her French is lyrical but when obliged to lurch into English she turns into the woman who owns the bar in Death in Paradise.
The set by Andrew D Edwards is immediately attractive: bright and modern and convincingly Californian, except it contains a glass-fronted box which in turn sometimes contains some of the cast when their expressions and audibility are severely compromised. It’s arty, but it’s also self-defeating.
The production is rammed with people off the telly but mostly from cable and Netflix and the casting is diabolically uneven with a raft of mismatched accents and acting styles. Worst of all as Tartuffe himself, with a Southern drawl even less convincing than Tom Hanks’ in The Green Mile, Paul Anderson – Arthur Shelby Junior in Peaky Blinders – doesn’t seem to have a clue, only coming into his character late in the second act with plausibly sinister anger when he’s exposed as a charlatan.
Tartuffe was conceived in 1664 as a satire of the golden age of the court at Versailles, and in the clumsiest of updates, the excessive posturings of Louis XIV are replaced by allusions to Donald Trump. It’s just wearying how readily theatre companies make this sort of facile reference without bothering to construct the devastating satire it should really attract.
With the bilingual subtitling and anti-American slant, I’m just not sure who this is aimed at.