BELL SHAKESPEARE’S ‘TARTUFFE’

It’s been a while since I took myself off to see a Bell Shakespeare production but I was very glad I bit the bullet on Friday night to see Justin Fleming’s version of Moliere’s ‘Tartuffe’, directed by Peter Evans at the Opera House.

Fleming has played with the rhyme and rhythm of the words and given it a contemporary and local flavour in language. At the start, it does feel caught up in the words and rhyme and it’s all you hear but it soon relaxes into a conversational flow and we, as audience, come to enjoy the cleverness of the rhythm, its tempo and anticipate the rhyme and beat. Fleming has smartly played with the variation of scheme and patterns and so it never feels repetitive or stale. This version has appeal and Evans has used an exceptional cast to highlight the freshness and playful aspects of Fleming’s writing.

Never for a moment did it look like this ensemble weren’t having fun and it certainly transferred into the audience and at times, literally. In the scene of the lovers’ fight, Valere (Tom Hobbs) and Mariane (Geraldine Hakewell) had a glorious moment when Valere turns to the audience to find a replacement for Mariane and the mischievousness of his seduction of very willing audience members is delicious in its humour and charm. Both actors knew how to work the contrast, commedia dell ‘arte style, of being in and out of love, of fighting and making up, of movement and stillness, and sound and silence.

I thoroughly enjoyed Jennifer Hagan’s Madame Pernelle and her ability to insult those around her and Leon Ford as Tartuffe was the right balance of sleaze and false piety and the scenes between Tartuffe and Elmire (Helen Dallimore) were crowd favourites. The cat crawl in stockings and heels were hilarious in capturing the idea of Tartuffe as the snake, hidden in the trappings of superficial and endowed wealth. He is smoke and mirrors, as evidenced in an impressive set design from Anna Cordingley. Antiques are askew, possessions appear and disappear, huge neon signs lower and expressing your Christianity is as easy as clicking a friend request. Evans, who I have forgiven for ‘Pygmalion’ after seeing this show, is not afraid to keep the show light and still smack social hypocrisy firmly on its rear. The voice of reason is irrelevant and even punished in a world where blind faith in appearance, duty and image reigns supreme.

The two cast highlights were Kate Mulvany (Dorine) and Sean O’Shea (Orgon). Mulvany’s comic timing and delivery and her mincing walk on perilous heels lifted every scene she appeared in on stage. O’Shea’s expressive physicality and vocals and contrast of unwavering believer and then victim of deceit, O’Shea’s Orgon is as likeable as he is frustratingly stubborn.

‘Tartuffe’ is witty and caustic and it makes this social satire infinitely watchable. There’s a fluidity of action from sheer slapstick (there must be a book each night in where Scott Witt’s pink slippers will end up) to classic commedia, farce and comedy of manners.

The ending is as contrived as it you can imagine. Witt (as the Figure in Judgement) declares Tartuffe as a hypocrite and sends him to the depths of Hell. Is this not the fantasy of life- that the bad be punished and the good rewarded? There’s the morality we want in our entertainment, even if we can’t get it in life, wrapped up in a satin bow and delivered to us. It’s as fake and superficial as Tartuffe and yet we applaud it, even though we know it’s as real as Tartuffe’s piety.

Bell Shakespeare’s ‘Tartuffe’ is pure entertainment and a pleasure to watch. Accept the ‘event request’ to the theatre and actually go. 

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