A boisterous garden party sets the scene for the frivolous to be exploited by a fake and philandering opportunist, in this latest delightful staging of Molière’s Tartuffe at the Baxter Theatre under direction of Sylvaine Strike, presented in association with the French Institute of South Africa and the Alliance Française South Africa.
The 17the century French playwright, Molière, is associated with the best of French farce, elevating it from mere slapstick silliness to sophisticated exaggerated and melodramatic comedy commentary, with a touch of satire. Molière made it fashionable to laugh at political and religious establishments through the theatrical escapades of his characters. This arguably made Tartuffe (The Imposter) the most famous and controversial of his comedic masterpieces, because who doesn’t like to laugh at a hypocritical faux-pious imposter who eventually gets trapped by his own greed?!
In this latest staging at the Baxter Theatre (as per the translation of Richard Wilbur), Strike impressively brings together not only Molière’s French style of farce with quick witted verbal calisthenics, but ups the traditional outrageous physical theatre flair with a strong influence of clowning, resulting in very bold yet elegant grand gestures. These embellished antics are strikingly executed by the talented cast with the aid of Owen Lonzar’s choreography.
The opportunity to play Tartuffe (the hypocritical devout), Orgon (the gullible master of the manor) and Elmire (his wife) is high on any actor’s classical wish list. Craig Morris, Neil McCarthy and Khutjo Green respectively impress and do justice to these sought after roles. Together they are a theatrical trio triumph. But what Strike does best with this Tartuffe is to showcase the power of ensemble, a key element to any good farce.
She brings out the best in every member of the cast in not only showcasing their eloquence with this very wordy and fast paced script, but also their talent for carrying a character through mere onstage presence even when they aren’t speaking. With this she reveals the power of subtle clowning. Two of the assembly who definitely caught my attention for getting that balance spot on, was Vuyelwa Maluleke as Mariane and Adrian Alper as Damis. Both, betrayed by their father Orgon in the favour he shows Tartuffe, embrace the outrage and uncomfortable spaces of their characters in the 'silences' between to aid both their own and the performance of the other characters, in giving comedic context to the story.
It is a lengthy play, or at least at times the 1 hour 45 minutes seemed a bit longer than that. A play written in rhyming couplets, the prose itself however grabs your attention, and just as the few run-on couplets make you think “oh this is going to be a long monologue” one of the characters quite cleverly call the culprit out on his or her ramblings. Clever Molière, clever!
The set design transports Tartuffe from the 17th century to somewhere between the 1930s to 1940s, though the costume design by Sasha Ehlers aided me more in making that deduction than the beautifully constructed set itself. Especially the costume of Dorine, played by the lovely Vanessa Cooke, made it clear that this time around Tartuffe plays itself out in a garden setting and not inside Orgon’s abode, opening it up literally and figuratively to reveal the lively energy or later lack thereof. From that perspective, the sharpness of the lighting design, at moments one would expect a softer ambience can be understood if not always agreed with.
Ultimately, the play embraces absurdity with great gaiety. The beautifully delivered text and exaggerated comedic mannerisms win the day in this Tartuffe staging, and makes a delightful theatre night.
In this modern day one may question whether Tartuffe as a piece will appeal to all ages, yet it is undeniable that the text is ever relevant and unquestionably brilliant. Viewed from a modern perspective, one may even say that Tartuffe as envisioned by Molière was the original creator of post truths and alternative facts as he until the very surprising end makes a flashy show of making Orgon believe that he knows “that true and false are not the same”, to such extremes that along with the other characters you marvel at Orgon's power to be mistaken.
Tartuffe is set to entertain audiences both at the Baxter until 29 April, before it goes on tour to Soweto, Johannesburg, Durban and the NAF. Tickets available at Computicket.