Tartuffe review (Queensland Theatre, QPAC)

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There is much to enjoy in this radical new production of Moliere’s 17th century play Tartuffe. It’s perhaps not Moliere’s best-known play, so many of us come to the production as tabula rasa, clean sheets on which no previous explanation has been written. For such people, the play will be a complete surprise, and even those who thought they knew it will be astonished.

We tend to think of all 17th century French drama as stiff and stylised, like life at court, with even the comedy rather upper-class and formal, always using stereotyped language. Not here though. The time frame has been changed so that it’s the 21st century (yes, I’m afraid orange is still the new black), and the formal drawing room has given place to a rich two-storey rectangular dwelling which uses the revolve stage of the Playhouse to its greatest advantage, as it turns to show the interiors of both sides. A brilliant conception here from Richard Roberts and David Murray. And it’s filled with what 80 years ago would have been called Bright Young Things, smoking dope, smoking and using their nebulisers at random, sometimes all three at once.  They’re noisy, uninhibited, sexually promiscuous, scions of the rich and famous who take their heritage for granted. It’s a type that has been familiar through the ages, and the party-goers being who they are, the police tend not to descend on them, nor the neighbours complain.

So don’t look for social justice, concern for others, or crossing the social boundaries here – this is the Good Life pure and simple. Just take Schoolies’ Week on Sydney’s North Shore as an example. 

And don’t look for a formal text, either. This is a new translation, or perhaps adaptation, in loosely rhyming couplets – although I can’t be dogmatic about that, as the words were hard to hear, many of the cast not coping with this form of language very well. Nor did all of them know how to fill the space of the Playhouse Theatre, with its curved auditorium, and I noticed that most of the tumultuous laughter was reserved for the physical business, while the straight moralising speeches of Cleante (Brisbane’s Hugh Parker, and what a thankless role it is, although he did his best with it) were received in silence.

Most of the play was performed as straight modern farce, with plenty of fanny-flashing, bosoms almost falling out of gowns, and black sexy underwear – not necessarily bad thing in themselves, but not always appropriate here, especially as the plot was hard to untangle for the first 30 minutes so that we didn’t know if the purpose was purely pornographic. Most of the cast were new to the Brisbane stage, so that was a refreshing element, and one of them, newcomer Emily Weir, out-tarted every cheeky French maid you’ve ever seen, taking unspeakable liberties with her masters, but speaking more sense than any of them. A superb debut, and her career will be worth watching.        

As for the hypocrite himself, the wildly popular Darren Gilshenan, winner of a slew of awards in spite of looking like a television game-show host, he was simply brilliant. A mixture of Rasputin and every sleazy guru you’ve ever seen, he managed to make his hypocrisy almost believable, and his seduction of Alison van Reeken, the bride’s wife in erotic underwear totally wasted on her dull husband Orgon (Steve Turner, who also plays it straight), is worth every second of their five-minute scene.

Overall, though, it didn’t work for me. Moliere’s witty script was almost lost in this plodding verse version, full of clichés, and the characters seemed to come from every theatrical genre, from over-the-top French farce to the “anyone for tennis?” kind of 20th century drawing room comedy. This made it difficult to get a feeling of the cast as a consistent group, and the actors with the straight parts, like Jenny Davis as the grandmother in her Chanel suit, and poor Hugh Parker as the voice of reason Cleante, who would have impressed in any other play, just seemed to hang around the edges.  

But there’s lots of fun in it, and like a Christmas stocking it’s full of unexpected treats as well as dull bits. If you don’t know the play, I would suggest that you read a summary of the plot before you go; and try to get seats in the middle of the auditorium rather than at the end of a row, as the mostly WA actors aren’t used to the layout, and don’t use the acoustics very well. But as a Christmas romp, it does well enough.

Tartuffe is at the Playhouse, QPAC until December 4

Photo by Daniel James Grant

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