Moliere’s Tartuffe is one of the finest French seventeenth-century comedies. Widely revered as one of his finest works, Tartuffe has been the subject of multiple translations and adaptations through the years. This production is both translated, and isn’t, is performed in both French and English, and crucially (though disappointingly) reinvents comedy to be not funny.
Transposed from the seventeenth century French court to a modern day LA mansion complete Tartuffe and his servant preside over the household like a modern day Christ the redeemer figure of hedonism; their humble pseudo-religious garments a stark contrast to the colour and implied extravagance of Orgon and his family: an infinity pool, copious bottles of champagne, a large moving neon cube… your guess is as good as mine on the latter.
There is a sense of the omniscient, omnipresent about the outsiders but the potential interest in the motifs of a video camera or camera phone seem to fall quickly by the wayside. Instead the figure of the Southern evangelist preacher (Peaky Blinders’ Paul Anderson in his West End debut) is an unconvincing object of Orgon’s affection (with a definite subtext of sexual fascination thrown in for good measure). Neither sufficiently alluring nor charismatic, his ability to dupe and deceive with the knowing certainty that is required of the eponymous imposter is decidedly absent.
The crux of the problem is this: the play never really knows what it is trying to be and why. If we are in modern day LA, why and what for? Why is there a moving neon box that muffles the actors’ voices so strongly they are oft unintelligible? Why is it a bilingual production? The audience is barely given time to settle in to one language before we lurch to the next, sometimes mid scene or even mid sentence, and your eyes are forced to flit across the stage away from the action to make sense of the surtitles. The action darts between traditional French Alexandrine and English blank verse and all the subtlety, wit and humour that so typifies Moliere falls somewhere through the cracks – if you have to read the jokes, all of a sudden they aren’t so funny. It is unfortunately both laboured and laborious to watch.
The closing scene, in which in the original we see an officer from the court of Louis XIV enter to address both the cast and the audience, in this adaptation becomes a White House emissary and is where the Trump-ian American references enter stage right swift and fast. The political allusions at this point are neither subtle nor particularly well considered – from Twitter to ‘pussy grabbing’, it’s a jam packed final speech that feels like an ill-conceived attempt to compensate for the lack of laughs in the preceding two hours. And with that unquestioning happy ending, and a self-indulgent four curtain calls later, the show was over. “Poor boy,” says Orgon of Tartuffe for what the family has subjected him to.
‘Poor us’ more like, for what we had to endure.
Tartuffe runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 28th July 2018. For more information, including showtimes and bookings, visit www.trh.co.uk.