The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 6th November, 2013
We are accustomed to seeing productions of Shakespeare in modern-day (or other) dress so why then is Moliere so hard to get right? I suppose some of the problems come from watching the plays in translation. In this new production of Tartuffe, Chris Campbell goes for a more-or-less translation, with English idioms and vernacular thrown in. What you are left with is a manner of speaking that is non-naturalistic but is not verse either. It hovers somewhere in-between the two and that is the trouble with this production in a nutshell.
There is a lack of consistency in the performance style. Some of the cast revel in the chance to perform in a heightened, comedic manner, and when these moments are developed unfettered, they are a joy. Paul Hunter’s Orgon, head of the house, warms up – by the second half he is unstoppable. He is supported by Sian Brooke as his canny wife Elmire and Calum Finlay as his daughter’s betrothed Valere. These three get the unreality right. Others are not up to speed. Ayesha Antoine is spirited as cheeky maid Dorine (although her costume baffles with its incongruity) but I would have liked her to be a little less well-spoken. There are Birmingham twangs bubbling under the surface throughout – why not go the whole hog and have the maid come from Dudley? Dinita Gohil displays some neat comic reactions as Orgon’s daughter Mariane (and perhaps the production hints at the ongoing issue of forced marriages) and Ashley Kumar gives some commanding histrionics as the righteous Damis. There is an absolutely bonkers turn from Janice Connolly as Mrs Pernelle who keeps a dog in a basket but barks herself – she opens the show and should set the tone. Sadly, the show doesn’t match or maintain her energy and commitment.
There is quite a build-up and delay before Tartuffe himself appears. Moliere knew what he was doing. He wants the audience to be in no doubt that this is a cozener, a Machiavel, and an arch-manipulator. Mark Williams’s interpretation is therefore a surprise. His Tartuffe is played straight. Soft-spoken and self-effacing, there are no knowing asides. It’s an interesting approach but at odds with the rest of the production. Above all, it’s not particularly funny. We need to see Tartuffe’s cogs working. We need to revel in his manipulations of these ninnies and we need to rejoice in his eventual downfall. Williams plays it all low-key and on an even keel. It’s a real disappointment. We get a vacuum at the heart of the play rather than a forceful, artful dodgy dealer. I didn’t like his costume either, a kind of smock and Jesus boots affair. Perhaps something along the lines of a televangelist would have signalled his hypocrisy better.
Roxana Silbert directs, supplying some funny comic business but doesn’t give us enough fizz and fireworks to keep the balloon in the air. The tone of the piece is too patchy and uneven. We cannot buy into this heightened world because we only witness it piecemeal. The characters’ preoccupations with piety (as opposed to contemporary issues of pie-eating) seem removed from us. Period costume would have added distance but somehow have brought us into their world – at least the picture would have been a unified one. Also, the violent abuse of the maid, however slapstick and cartoony, doesn’t sit well in this partially contemporary, partially timeless realm, with its mickey-taking of Wolverhampton and references to parking costs near the theatre. Ideas, amusing in isolation, jar with each other in juxtaposition, like trying to piece together a picture from at least two different jigsaw puzzles.
Liz Ashcroft’s set is a thing of beauty, representing the interior and the exterior of Orgon’s house, with French furniture and Fragonard paintings. Trouble is it is indicative of the problem with the production. It is neither one thing nor another.
What should be a dazzling display is a damp squib. What should be a box of delights turns out to be a mixed bag.