Long before Hillsong and the American mega-churches of recent years, Moliere was taking on those who used religion for their own means in his 1664 comedy Tartuffe. In the play, perhaps the most famous French comedy of all time, the title character uses his apparent religious devotion to charm the pants off, and then the wallet out of the pocket of, a wealthy, respected gentleman.
Although the play wasn’t directly criticising religion or the church, rather the hypocrisy of those who twisted and used religious principles for their own objectives, it drew the ire of religious figures and was banned for several years.
Bell Shakespeare co-artistic director Peter Evans is currently in rehearsal for the company’s new production of the work, in a translation by Justin Fleming. He previously directed Fleming’s translation for Melbourne Theatre Company in 2008, with a cast featuring Garry McDonald and Marina Prior. In his Bell Shakespeare production, the characters have been transported from their original 17th century Parisian setting to a post-Global Financial Crisis Sydney.
“It’s very easy to make it a Sydney play,” Evans says. “It’s very much an urban play, set in an urban house. The characters were very specifically Parisians in Moliere’s play, and they’re quite disparaging of people who lived in the country.”
Evans’ production takes place in a mansion in an exclusive Sydney suburb (think Vaucluse). Orgon (played by Sean O’Shea), the gentleman who owns the property, brings Tartuffe (Leon Ford) into his household in his quest to get closer to God as he makes his way through middle age.
“Orgon is very successful, politically, and is owed a lot of favours,” Evans says. “I imagine that maybe he had a scare in the GFC that made him search for meaning and more vulnerable to this imposter coming into his life.”
According to Evans, the way Tartuffe looks at hypocrisy and the relationship between religion and money is as pertinent as it’s ever been.
“The 20th century mega-church was linked to money,” he says. “There was suddenly a sense that God wants you to become rich. Christianity never got more literal than it did in the 20th century. For most of its existence it was understood as a series of lessons and stories that we should look at, but all of a sudden it became very literal and money became incredibly important, and it’s fraught with danger when those two things come together.”
Moliere’s original text is written entirely in rhyming couplets, with 1,962 twelve-syllable lines. Fleming has retained the rhyme structure but mixed things up a little, switching between rhyming couplets and rhymes on alternate lines.
“He has such respect for the original in terms of its irreverence and naughtiness, but at the same time has really worked on the rhyme structure,” Evans says of Fleming’s translation. “There’s a game being played with the audience; they can’t help but to imagine where it’s going. Sometimes he takes you exactly where you want to go and sometimes he doesn’t.
The rhymes have been a unique challenge for the cast, which features Leon Ford, Sean O’Shea, Helen Dallimore and Kate Mulvaney.
“The thing that we have to work out is how to collect the rhymes without making them too sing-song. But you don’t want to deny them and make it naturalistic, and pretend like it’s not happening. Every now and then, characters are aware and own the fact that they’ve found the right word. But most of the time it just sits there underneath, holding it together.”
Ford stars as the hypocritical title character, an essential piece of the puzzle for any production of the work.
“Leon’s Tartuffe is a very dangerous one, because you can’t see what’s happening underneath. He’s very good at seducing, and you can see that cultish power in his eyes. Leon’s able to twist that thing we see all the time; people getting sucked into schemes.”