Bell Shakespeare’s rollicking version of Moliere’s Tartuffe will have you laughing uncomfortably at the easy success of manipulation and deceit.
Leon Ford shines as the wily, sanctimonious Tartuffe, the penniless stranger who, in the words of the sharp-tongued maid Dorine (played brilliantly by Kate Mulvany), “arrives with no shoes, his clothes not worth a cracker, No sooner in the door, than he starts to wag his clacker.”
Justin Fleming’s translation is modern and irreverent, combining rhyme with modern colloquialisms and mild obscenities to make Moliere’s 17th century classic very accessible and highly enjoyable. There are even allusions to 21st century social media such as the hilarious “Jesus is your friend, accept/ignore” sign that hangs on stage throughout the second half.
Director Peter Evans confidently pulls all these elements together aided by a talented cast. Sean O’Shea is the gullible besotted wealthy merchant Orgon who, taken in completely by Tartuffe’s saintly guise, gives away his family fortune and very nearly also loses his wife Elmire (Helen Dallimore) to the pious impostor. Dallimore’s scene where she sets out to entrap Tartuffe by appearing to give in to his lascivious sexual overtures is utterly hilarious.
Geraldine Hakewill (daughter Mariane) and Tom Hobbs (Valere) are the young lovers whose upcoming marriage is pulled off the rails when Orgon decides Tartuffe would make a better husband and son-in-law. Robert Jago is the reasonable clear-sighted Cleante who sees through the charade from the start, as does the indomitable Dorine. Not so matriarch Madam Pernelle (Jennifer Hagan) who persists in believing Tartuffe until the bitter end when the bailiffs arrive to turf them out of house and home.
Anna Cordingley’s simple set design is extremely versatile: a large wardrobe that opens to reveal a church and closes to conceal eavesdroppers, a large Chesterfield sofa suitable for all occasions, and a long-case clock that appears to have been hastily propped leaning against a wall.
The appeal of this clever production lies in the excellent acting and its amusingly catchy rhymes but also the comic relief: while evil triumphs, it’s not for long and Tartuffe is summoned to hell by the court of “poetic justice” which intervenes just as it seems he has prevailed and nothing can be done.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if reality imitated art?
Tartuffe, The Hypocrite is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until August 23.