Incroyable. A Moliere play at the National. It's only taken ten years since the last time one of our national subsidised companies mounted a production of this scandalously under-performed playwright.
Perhaps it's the thought of 17th-century rhyming couplets that are deemed to be off-putting. There's no danger of that here as Ranjit Bolt's exceptionally lively and racy version entertains from the outset. Wisely eschewing the temptation to reproduce Moliere's Alexandrine verse, his translation manages the perfect blend of satire and slapstick in this story of a religious hypocrite who worms his way into the home of the wealthy Orgon. Bolt even manages to hit a few modern targets with his sly references to the 'middle way'.
The main attraction of Lindsay Posner's production is undoubtedly Martin Clunes (pictured) as Tartuffe, a man behaving very badly indeed. One of the strengths of the play is that Tartuffe doesn't appear until nearly an hour into proceedings, allowing the other cast members to build up a vivid picture of the man. (Bolt even plays on Clunes' best-known feature by including a reference to his 'big red ears').
When he eventually makes an appearance, Clunes doesn't disappoint. From his memorable opening line ("my hairshirt might need wringing out"), his is a spot-on smug, self-satisfied, self-righteous portrayal of a sanctimonious cant. Posner has wrung from Clunes a performance that is beautifully underplayed. It is all too easy to play the part as a cringing, fawning lickspittle or as a bombastic preacher, but Clunes manages a façade of such utter simplicity that the audience could almost believe in his saintliness - if it weren't for the almost imperceptible smile that plays on his lips.
There are also some strong performances from Debra Gillett as Dorine the maid (and seemingly sole source of reason in the house), Julian Wadham as the suave brother-in-law, and a brief, but effective, appearance by Margaret Tyzack as Orgon's mother. However, I couldn't really believe in David Threlfall's Orgon. Posner has him adopting the dress and attitudes of his mentor, but that fits oddly with the rest of Threlfall's rather frantic performance.
Nor is there much help from the rest of the cast where we have to contend with some more frenzied overacting. Bolt's translation doesn't need such embellishment.
In some respects, Tartuffe is a harbinger of the farcical element in French drama. And Posner brings out every element of this, although these are generally the weaker parts of the production. Tartuffes abound in the modern world, and this fine rendition demonstrates that Moliere was a dramatist not only for France but for everyone.
- Maxwell Cooter