Molière’s great comedy is an obliging play that can be adapted to multiple settings. Last year the RSC transposed it hilariously to a Birmingham suburb where a parvenu Pakistani found himself surrendering to a fake imam. John Donnelly’s new version doesn’t have the same social precision but is still highly enjoyable and offers a radical new take on the play.
The comedy is almost always classified as a satire on religious hypocrisy. In Donnelly’s hands it becomes a study of bourgeois guilt. He poses a simple question: what if Tartuffe, who is invited by the wealthy Orgon into his household, is not a total fraud but a genuine, streetwise shaman? As played by the American actor Denis O’Hare, this Tartuffe is seedy, acquisitive and lecherous but also an authentic guru who tells Orgon: “I’ve never pretended to be anything I’m not.” The whole play then becomes about Orgon’s hunger for expiation for the sins of himself and his class.
It is a perfectly valid reading and one pursued with great logic. My main cavil concerns Donnelly’s haziness over the social details. Of what exactly is Orgon guilty? We gather that he has made a fortune in criminal speculation after “the last rather ill-advised war” and during “the recent upheavals” but we are not told which war or what upheavals. At other times, we get too much information. One of the greatest scenes in world drama is that where Orgon’s wife, Elmire, volunteers to expose Tartuffe’s sexual voracity while her husband lies powerlessly hidden. Here, however, Olivia Williams’s Elmire has just confessed to Orgon that she’s had a string of lovers, which undercuts Molière’s vision that bourgeois propriety is under threat.
But the production, vividly staged by Blanche McIntyre, gets many things right. There is a faint touch of homoeroticism to the relationship between Kevin Doyle’s conscience-plagued, dottily infatuated Orgon and the scuttling, ferret-like Tartuffe of O’Hare. The latter, with his oriental topknot, South American accent and tattered acolytes, wittily suggests he is both a spiritual healer and a social chameleon.
The attendant figures are also sharply characterised. Kitty Archer plays Orgon’s daughter, Mariane, as a spoilt brat angrily refusing to be sacrificed to her father’s political needs. Geoffrey Lumb amusingly makes her lover, Valère, a bombastic socialist poet who views rhyme as a bourgeois construct. Hari Dhillon also transforms the standard raisonneur, Cleante, into a suave American lawyer intrigued by Tartuffe’s subversive presence, and Susan Engel is on monumental form as Orgon’s tyrannical, Tartuffe-hypnotised mother. Donnelly has adapted the play to today to suggest that a reckoning will ultimately be paid for society’s grotesque inequalities and, even if the backstory is sketchy, the message comes across loud and clear.