Molière still hits the spot

The classic Tartuffe transposed to Highgate provides a witty commentary on post-crash London

Anne McElvoy

Molière is having a bit of a moment these days, a tribute to the staying power of a playwright dissecting the vanities and greed of 17th-century France, but also because his focus on the ambiguities of sins and virtues, outward appearances and the distorting effects of wealth have hit a nerve in the uneasy years since the 21st-century financial crash. We had a gag-filled version of The Miser at the Garrick Theatre in 2017, with Griff Rhys Jones and Lee Mack playing it for broad laughs and pratfalls. The Berliner Ensemble offered a wildly deconstructed version last year, which owed as much to the influence of the Theatre de Complicité’s capacity for acrobatic farce as it did to the canny moralist of the court of Louis XIV. The National Theatre’s new production (until April 22) carries on the revival tradition of re-setting classical comedy somewhere the audience would like to see taken down a peg or two.

John Donnelly and Blanche McIntyre’s adaption and direction of Tartuffe moves the action from Orgon’s high-end bourgeois home in Paris to Highgate, at a time that feels vaguely now but so stylised in the design vernacular of the early 2000s that it looks as if Kate Moss might have been the previous owner.

The addled Orgon (Kevin O’Doyle), unhappy wife Elmire (Olivia Williams) and daffy but well-intentioned daughter Marianne (Kitty Archer) are collectively a marvellous send-up of trendy wealth, with Tartuffe (Denis O’Hare) reincarnated as a Shamanistic yoga teacher. You will never hear the peaceful injunction “namaste” uttered with such sinewy contempt.

O’Hare is a daring casting for the National — a Broadway stalwart, better known here as a star of screen drama from True Blood to American Horror Story. The gamble pays off, despite the adoption of a rather odd Dutch-Afrikaans accent, because O’Hare has a kind of physical presence that unnerves, even as he potters around doing showy yoga moves and washing his groin with ice from the champagne bucket.

It is a freewheeling treatment of the old story of infatuation and excessive parental control doomed to fail. As a humorous assault on the manners and ticks of the “woke” generation, it hits the spot. Best belly laughs go to Valère, the (briefly) spurned suitor, who discovers via Instagram that thigh-booted Marianne is about to marry Tartuffe. Naturally, he is now a “street poet”, whose lyrical outpourings denounce the “main-stream media” and include a new number entitled “The pigs are after me.”

McIntyre’s pacey direction keeps it all bowling along, complete with coup de théâtre moments involving Best Supporting Sofa. Robert Jones’s set and costumes look gorgeous, in the sickly way that too much wealth can make us feel envious and disapproving. Simultaneously. O’Donnell’s adaptation has moments of inspired mischief. Valère would like to be “one of the great lovers in history — like Casanova, or Russell Brand before he settled down”.

The harder part is sustaining the credibility of infatuation between Orgon, guilty here of insider trading (a sturdy swap for the financial malfeasance in the original), and Tartuffe. O’Doyle’s Orgon is twitchy, distracted and unable to open up to his family — so far, so stressed. The difficulty is being able to believe that this quivering wreck was such a thrusting businessman in the first place.

Elegant Elmire (never seen in less than five-inch heels at home) is prepared to subject herself to borderline rape by Tartuffe to prove to her husband the house-guest’s fraudulence. It provides the pivotal scene of the play and there is abundant physical comedy in the aloof Williams being bundled around like a rag doll by Tartuffe while a hidden Orgon observes. But Molière wants us to be outraged, not just amused, and we sometimes lose the heart of the matter as the action grows more chaotic.

It would be churlish to give away the ending, but suffice it to say that the perpetually woke National Theatre in 2019 was never going to let us off with a satire on faddish trendiness and lefty poets. So there is a twist to Tartuffe’s role which comes pretty sharpish at the end and takes us back to the safe harbour of Corbyn-y ideas. A slight shame, given that what has preceded it has been more even-handed satire.

But if you can’t have a dramatic deus ex machina in Molière, when can you? He was induced to revise it (twice), turning Tartuffe from a clergyman to a vaguely religious scoundrel and wisely giving the King a role as the saviour of the day, a moment cannily twisted here for actuality.

I should probably have left feeling more enraged by what guilty bankers get up to in Highgate than I did. But for theatrical fizz and a date with your favourite younger millennial, it’s a definite recommend. Just be ready to answer the distracted question, “Who even is Molière?”

Next door at the tiny Dorfman Studio (until March 2) we have Cate Blanchett in When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, to which an unsparing answer would be, about five minutes from the opening scene.

Martin Crimp’s play is loosely based on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. We might, however, miss the reference to Richardson’s dastardly Lord B’s abuse of a serving girl, seeing as the characters in a long game of sexual cat and mouse are in a garage and reduced to the role of Man and Woman. But the Garden of Eden this is not.

The curse of wokeness obscures this offering, which sets out to explore how fluid gender roles affect sex as a form of domination and power relations between the sexes. It sounds a lot like the kind of seminars hosted by on-trend Eng Lit departments. Blanchett and Stephen Dillane try their best to bring an arid text to life. Blanchett, who to her credit takes difficult stage roles rather than bask solely in the admiration of Hollywood directors, shifts between sensual flirt as a woman and the role of male tormentor with flair. When she ironically strokes a thigh in a stockinged foot we see the accomplished, ironic movement of a latter-day Mrs Robinson. Dillane, as the imprisoner caught in some weird Mrs Danvers-ish relationship with his housekeeper (Jessica Gunning), looks less at ease throughout. I guess Crimp is asking us to consider whether there is such a thing as sado-masochistic desire that is not just an internalised version of the patriarchy. But besides the the accomplishment of the acting, it’s hard to care what happens to either of the characters. The show’s poster shows the gorgeous Blanchett with Dillane behind her, both looking very miserable. But hey, that’s sadomasochism for you.

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