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Review: Tartuffe (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

Gerald Garutti directs Christopher Hampton's dual-language adaptation of Molière's 17th century play

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Paul Anderson and Audrey Fleurot
© Helen Maybanks

Depending on its translator, Tartuffe has two separate subtitles: The Hypocrite or The Impostor. There's no doubting that Christopher Hampton's new bilingual adaptation gives us the latter. Paul Anderson might be the picture of piety in his ascetic white robes, but he's a charlatan without the slightest scrap of conviction. The focus is always on his powers of persuasion. He takes his credible victims in like a preying mantis.

Relocated to Donald Trump's duplicitous America, Tartuffe becomes a latterday evangelical: the sort of preacher who promises the keys to God's kingdom and holds his followers rapt. He speaks with a sing-song Southern accent, and walks on with bare feet, gripping his rosary beads like a thug's bicycle chain. His back is tattooed with a conspicuous crucifix, but the joker on his ribcage is less visible. Still, there's no missing the fact that he's a snake in saint's clothing – and yet he bends Sebastian Roché's billionaire Orgon to his will as readily as any Rasputin, convincing him to marry off his daughter and hand over his wealth.

If Orgon's taken in, it's because he's cut off by his unworldly riches – and that's the point Hampton wants to make stick. Roché makes clear that self-made men are so certain of their convictions, so set in their ways and stuck in their worlds, that they simply stop seeing sense. No matter how fervently his family warn of Tartuffe's trickery, Orgon refuses to admit the possibility. He's a willing victim, ripe for the taking – as, indeed, so many super-rich megastars are: Tom Cruise in thrall to scientology, the Blairs to Carole Caplin, perhaps even Trump to Steve Bannon as well. Andrew D Edwards' glossy set is a series of boxes in boxes, surrounded by mirrors that fall away into a black void.

Sebastian Roché and Paul Anderson
© Helen Maybanks

Anderson shows us Tartuffe's seductive techniques – the way he seems to shapeshift, hunched small and unimposing when he needs to be, then looming large over his stinking rich prey. There's something of the cult about his hypnotic mannerisms – pure Wild, Wild Country – yet he wraps himself around Orgon's wife Elmire, seducing her like a spider paralyses a fly. However, in relying so fully on physicality, French director Gérald Garutti's staging lays everything up-front, obliterating subtext and subtlety in the process. When Elmire lays Tartuffe a honeytrap, for instance, Audrey Fleurot prostrates herself like a Bond girl served up as bait. How Tartuffe doesn't see through her coo-coo-ca-choo advances is beyond me.

It's a French thing and Tartuffe suggests the two theatrical cultures don't mix: Garutti's English actors aren't comfortable with the physicality, his French cast (Roché excepted) mangle the words. Being bilingual makes it a difficult watch, practically speaking, as your brain's forced to flick between registers. Just as you tune into one language, the speakers switch and you're sent scrabbling for surtitles. Chunks of text go missing in a restless encounter that never settles. Molière's play might revolve around misunderstandings – "In the tower of Babel, babble's what you get," quips Elmire – but Hampton's version neither hinges on it, nor makes the metaphor count.

There's a second split: Hampton's both faithful to Molière, and specific to Trump. But the two cancel each other out in Garutti's abstracted staging and, while Tartuffe's pertinence is obvious in a nation taken in, its action sits oddly in its new context. It's never more confused than when Trump himself drops in at the end – a Donald-ex-machina – and saves the day with a glibly satirical speech showing off his hypocrisy. Or is it impostering?