Brilliantly translated from 17th century French into modern-day English by Ranjit Bolt, Tartuffe (performed entirely in rhyming couplets) may take a while to settle into, but it is utterly worth it once you have.
Opening on a family dispute, it quickly becomes clear that the source of all the fuss is a new houseguest, the eponymous Tartuffe (played by Steven Rowan Jeram). Claiming to be a pious man, he has been brought into the family home by Orgon, despite protests from his wife Elmire, his maid Dorine and his children Damis and Mariane who all see straight through Tartuffe’s charms. Only Orgon’s mother, Madame Pernelle (played by Miranda Otter-Barry Ross) sees it Orgon’s way, believing the rest of the family to be un-pious and jealous of Tartuffe and the attention lavished on him by Orgon.
In true Restoration comedy style, the family quickly devise a plan to reveal Tartuffe as the liar and hypocrite that he truly is, all the while trying to reunite Mariane with her true love, Valère. Of course, this doesn’t all go as intended, and much of the second act of the play is spent trying to restore everything to normality.
Eliza Shea plays the straight-talking, sensible, and occasionally scheming Dorine, the maid who isn’t afraid to say what’s what. Whilst Tartuffe’s entrance into the house is undoubtedly the catalyst for the whole play, it is Dorine who picks up the pieces and keeps the play moving forward. Never putting a foot wrong, Shea perfectly blends comedic timing and sharp delivery to give a flawless performance in this pivotal role.
Anna Thirkettle must also be praised for her part as Elmire. Switching effortlessly between the roles of seductress and matriarch, her on-stage relationship with both Pete Watts’s Orgon and Jeram’s Tartuffe are pitch-perfect, particularly in the second act, where her character is really allowed to shine. Watts himself performs the role of Orgon impeccably. Bringing the majority of the laughs to the play, Watt’s humour, both physical and verbal, is unparalleled, and only serves to heighten the more serious moments in his character’s performance.
Maria Terry and Dan Cornwell play the star-crossed lovers Mariane and Valère well, managing to be both convincing and funny in equal measure. Rhys Hayes performs very well as Elmire’s brother Cleante, providing a much needed dose of reason into an otherwise highly bizarre series of events. Damis, the hot-headed young son of Orgon was played convincingly by Rory Hern, managing to be humorously childish without seeming petulant.
The role of Tartuffe, by no means an easy one, was taken on by Steven Jeram. Making his entrance over halfway through the first act, the audience had built up a lot of anticipation for the character. Jeram’s turn as the eponymous Tartuffe did not disappoint. Entering through a larger-than-life canvas of Jesus, it is immediately clear to the audience that the character of Tartuffe has grandiose ideas about himself. Jeram manages to carefully toe the line between being dislikeable and downright ridiculous, bringing the perfect level of comedy into the role to bring this balance.
Whilst the rhyming scheme throughout may be initially jarring, it quickly becomes an integral part of the play, even acting as a punch line every now and then. It is testament to these actors that they managed to perform such an unusual script in such a seemingly effortless manner, never appearing forced or struggling with their lines.
The set and costumes also deserve an honourable mention. Managing to evoke 17th century France whilst still remaining indisputably modern, the air of timelessness and luxury about the set allowed the audience to immediately understand the context of the play and the characters’ motivations. The giant portrait of Jesus was put to brilliant use throughout the play, acting as both the all seeing eye of God and a show of Orgon’s piousness. Small details like the number of crucifixes around Tartuffe’s neck gradually building throughout the play to show his growing arrogance did not go unnoticed and were very well done.
Director Beth Sherburn should be extremely happy with this production of Tartuffe. In fact, everyone involved in the play should be highly praised for delivering a highly complex script into such an easily digestible and highly enjoyable performance.