After spending two and a half hours with Justin Fleming’s rhyming couplets, it feels a little disconcerting to re-enter the real world; one where conversations don’t rhyme. In Fleming’s version of Moliere’s 1664 comedy Tartuffe, the language has been updated and Australian-ised, but Moliere’s rhyme structure is maintained.
It’s a translation which makes the play feel utterly contemporary — the theme of hypocrisy and the way people use religion to manipulate others resonates as loudly as it ever did.
Respected gentleman Orgon (Sean O’Shea) has everything he could possibly want — a loving family and wife, a great job and a gorgeous new house — but when he stumbles across a supposedly infallible religious guru Tartuffe (Leon Ford), he’s overcome with admiration and love, and starts to wonder if there might be more to life. Of course, Tartuffe is not all he seems, and has got his eye firmly fixed on Orgon’s fortune.
Director Peter Evans’ production of Fleming’s translation (which this is his second production of, after directing it under the title The Hypocrite for Melbourne Theatre Company in 2008) has one foot in the here and now and another in Moliere’s aristocratic world. With Anna Cordingley’s attractive set and costume design, the glamour of the 17th century French courts meets the glamour of Sydney’s high society. It speaks very much to Sydney sensibilities today — our vanity and hypocrisy, and our desperate, often blinding desire to find more “meaning” in our lives, no matter the cost.
But looking that deeply is probably to miss the main point. This production is an absolute riot, and a real “great night out” at the theatre, with so many broad laughs you could recommend it to anybody.
The performances are all first class — masterclasses in comedic timing and using nuance to score the biggest laughs.
Sean O’Shea excels as Orgon, completely hypnotised by Tartuffe, who is played by a smarmy, but undeniably charming Leon Ford. The relationship between the two characters is one of the most intriguing things about the production — we’re never sure exactly why Orgon has bonded to Tartuffe so strongly, but it leaves us wondering exactly what he was seeking.
Helen Dallimore also shines as Elmire in her scene with Ford’s Tartuffe, full of finely executed physical comedy. Geraldine Hakewill as Mariane and Tom Hobbs as Valere get one of the show’s funniest scenes, in a confused young lovers’ tiff.
But the show is, undeniably, Kate Mulvany’s, as the all-knowing maid Dorine. She’s instantly endearing thanks to her ability to see and say what the others won’t, and her physical performance (enhanced by Cordingley’s costume) is a comedic gem.
When Scott Witt appears as the figure in judgement in the final moments of the play, proceedings reach an unexpected peak of hilarity. I won’t give the surprise away. But there is a surprise. And it’s good.
While there are plenty of winks and nods to the traditions of theatre, this is comedy for everybody and bucketloads of fun. Highly recommended.