★★★★☆ Kate Cherry’s update of Molière’s 17th-century commedia d’ell arte is the complete package.
Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth
October 27, 2016
Kate Cherry’s final hurrah after nine years as Artistic Director of Black Swan State Theatre Company is a production of Molière’s Tartuffe that is both hilarious and incisive. Her successful update of Moliere’s 17th-century commedia d’ell arte is the complete package. It owes much to Justin Fleming’s Australian-ised text enriched by an opulently materialistic set and a cast of articulate, naturalistic actors.
The play opens with Madame Pernelle (Jenny Davis in outrageous form) descending the stairs of the marbled mansion in Richard Robert’s stunning rotating set. She provides a fabulously blunt introduction to each character as she takes her leave of the “house that’s gone astray”.
The father of the home Orgon (Steve Turner is excellent as a small, misguided man) has welcomed the cash-strapped cleric Tartuffe into his home and become entranced by his religiosity. Different opinions are expressed about the house-guest and it becomes clear that Tartuffe is not all he appears. Despite this, Orgon decides to bequeath his home, daughter and inheritance to the imposter and it is up to the family (ably led by the maidservant Dorine) to prove Tartuffe’s hypocrisy.
Orgon’s wife Elmire (given a Desperate Housewives’ glamour by Alison van Reeken) hatches a plan to reveal Tartuffe’s deception by pretending to encourage his unwanted advances. Tartuffe (Darren Gilshenan is creepy and comic in the role) has evolved from flagellating penitent to cocktail-sipping magnate and is quick to pin her to the dining room table, not realising Orgon is hiding underneath. The distraught Orgon finally has to agree he has been duped, declaring “I give this man sheep’s clothing and he pulls it over my eyes”. The painting hanging over the dining table of the wolf descending from the heavens dressed in a sheep skin is a nice touch.
Molière’s critics were alarmed by his comic portrayal of a man of the cloth but Molière saved some of his most outrageous writing for the maidservant Dorine. Essentially the stock character Colombina from commedia d’ell arte traditions, Dorine is a prototype for Suzanne in Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro with her witty interjection into family affairs well above her station. Emily Weir dons a Kath and Kim accent and a low-cut dress to assist her sassy commentary. Her actions as the go-between for the ‘Innamorati’ are particularly hilarious. Molière’s hopeless lovers are Orgon’s daughter Mariane (a sweetly pathetic Tessa Lind) and her lover Valère (a long-suffering James Sweeny). Mariane’s brother Damis is played by the hot-headed, fist swinging Alex Williams while the mild-mannered uncle Cleante is portrayed with crisp plummy diction by Hugh Parker.
The cast has such obvious mastery over the language structure and the comic timing that it is easy to forget the play is over 300-years old. Fleming’s script is a stream of Australian colloquialisms perfectly placed and cleverly structured to follow Moliere’s rhyming scheme. Lines like Valere’s “To assist with your escape my Uber is at the gate” keep the audience laughing from beginning to end.
Tony Brumpton’s music, best described as a Baroque dance party remix, and David Murray’s modernist lighting in cool whites and blues give a contemporary touch to the design and enable smooth scene changes.
Moliere’s definition of comedy was “to reform men through entertainment” and Cherry allows plenty of breathing space for lengthy passages taking deeper aim at issues of truth and lies, moderation and excess. The result is not so much cheap shots at religion (as Cleante gently points out “You don’t want centuries of spiritual generosity thrown out in the bathwater”) but layers of pre-Enlightenment philosophising on deception, vulnerability and self-determination. The arrival of the ABC television reporter in the final scene packs a hilarious punch to the moral point.
Tartuffe runs until November 6 at the WA State Theatre and the Queensland Theatre Company season is November 12-December 4