Tartuffe – April 2017

Experience: 8/10

By Andrew Hilton and Dominic Power, after Molière

Company: Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Tuesday 11th April 2017

I was aware that this was an adapted version of Tartuffe, but I wasn’t sure what to expect. As it turned out, this was one of the best versions we’ve seen of this play, second only to the RSC’s 1983 production with Nigel Hawthorne, Alison Steadman, Anthony Sher and David Bradley, amongst others. In this adaptation, the story has been updated to the present day, allowing for topical references, and it all worked brilliantly within a political setting. The characters were also wonderfully updated, and although the comedy took a while to get going – the audience were a bit slow to warm up tonight – there was plenty to laugh at in the later acts.

We sat in the front row on the right, and had a good view of most of the performance. A dark green chesterfield sofa stood in front of us, facing inwards, with a small table on its right. There was another chest or table between the pillars to our right, and a table with the drinks tray was flanked by two chairs in the far corner. Another chest filled the space to the left of that, while a black grand piano stood between the entrance pillars, covered in crushed black velvet, with a potted fern standing next to it. The centre of the floor was covered in a well-worn but not tatty carpet, while the rest was floorboards. A standard lamp by the far-left pillar and two ceiling lights completed the picture. The pillars themselves were wood effect, and the main doorway was outlined by pale green curtains and matching pelmet while the double doors had stained glass panels.

The performance opened with a song. The two youngsters were at the piano, with the daughter, Mel (Daisy May), playing and her brother, Dan (Joel Macey), standing. I didn’t catch all of the words, but I realised it was a parody song, taking the mickey out of “our kid”, which we later learned was the title of Tartuffe’s book. Their grandmother, Dame Pamela Ogden (Tina Gray) – I got the names from the program, as I didn’t catch them all when characters were introduced – then came in and told them off. She was a strict, twin-set and pearls kind of woman, and although she spoke with a Scottish accent and there were references to the social changes she’d fought for when she was younger, it was clear she was a traditional Tory type who was appalled at the lax morals and ingratitude of the younger generation.

Her diatribe went on a bit too long and seemed repetitive to me, which didn’t help to warm the audience up. When the youngsters’ step-mother, Emma (Saskia Portway), came on, she was suffering from a headache, so things didn’t get much livelier. But eventually Charles Ogden (Christopher Bianchi) – an MP and junior minister (and hoping for better things) – arrived, and the argument could really get going.

By this time we knew that the dialogue was in rhyming couplets, which worked very well with the modernised language. Costumes were also modern, and there were plenty of up-to-date references. The Our Kid book was lying around the room, though we hadn’t spotted it initially, and it was picked up and waved around from time to time. The premise of the book was that Tartuffe had been an abused child in Wales who had been through a wide range of difficult experiences, finally acquiring a high degree of spiritual enlightenment which he wanted to share with the rest of humanity. This cross between the confessional biography and self-help book had become a best-seller, and Charles had invited the man to live in his house so that he could benefit from Tartuffe’s spiritual guidance and practical wisdom. His wife and children weren’t so keen, the foreign maid was frankly unimpressed, having to do lots of extra work to keep their guest happy, and Emma’s brother Clem (Philip Buck), a journalist, couldn’t stop himself from telling his brother-in-law at every opportunity that Tartuffe was a fraud and a sponger, even as he (Clem) knocked back another glass of Ogden’s scotch. Only Charles and his mother were fans of the newly famous guru, and they were both besotted.

Danuta (Anna Elijasz), the maid, was a very enjoyable character. She went around with hearing buds most of the time while she did the housework, and after one of Charles’ attempts to get her to leave him and Mel alone, she put the buds back in her ears and mimed that she couldn’t hear. She comforted Mel about her split with her boyfriend Val (Kenton Thomas), a young lawyer, giving her the duster to use as a hanky. Her statements were always very down-to-earth and funny, and she was the most practical person in the household. She was the one who translated Tartuffe’s faux-mantras at the end, adding to the fun and Charles’ embarrassment.

Charles attempted to persuade Mel to break off her engagement with Val and marry Tartuffe instead. He had learned (from Tartuffe, of course) that Val had been ‘playing the field’ since he got back from university, and, in between interruptions from Danuta, tried to cajole Mel into accepting that Tartuffe would be the perfect husband for her. She wasn’t that daft, and things escalated to the point where Charles threatened to cut her off completely. When Val arrived, he had already come across the information that Mel was going to marry Tartuffe and he was well ticked off. That put her back up, especially as she hadn’t agreed to anything, and their resulting tiff was entertaining as well as causing them to break up for real.

This situation was well set up by the time we actually got to see Tartuffe himself (Mark Meadows). He came on with Charles at the end of an exercise run. Charles was panting heavily, while Tartuffe was hardly sweating, and he made use of the cool-down stretches to poke fun at his host, making faces while his back was turned, getting him to chant all sorts of nonsense and similar tricks.

Emma had decided to tackle Tartuffe herself, to prove that he was a hypocrite. Unfortunately, unknown to her, Dan had hidden himself behind the sofa (right in front of us) to eavesdrop – we enjoyed the way he dropped a cushion on the floor before kneeling down. Emma’s plan was going quite well, and Tartuffe was showing definite interest in her proposition when Dan, incensed, leapt up from behind the sofa and announced that he would tell all. Tartuffe’s experience as a con man showed in the way he finessed the situation, confessing his love for Emma but putting it all down to the neglect he suffered from his mother when he was young.

Charles fell for it hook, line and sinker. Over his family’s astonished outrage, he insisted that they were judging Tartuffe unfairly, that his honesty was commendable and his affections for Emma understandable, given her upstanding character and Tartuffe’s deprived and abusive childhood. To show how much he trusted the man, he even told Emma to spend more time with him. Tartuffe found this so funny that Charles thought he was crying, and although we weren’t laughing as much as he was, it was a very funny scene. Disgusted with his family’s attitude, Charles sent his son packing and was calling his lawyer as he left, arranging to transfer the house to Tartuffe’s charity. Interval.

Not many changes to the set for the second half, though a fresh whisky bottle had been brought on. For the restart there was some music playing, the room was dark and Tartuffe was looking in from the outside, through the glass panels in the double doors, while Mel and Dan, offstage, sang “Pass the Parcel”. When the action got underway, Clem was the first to have a go at Tartuffe (and the scotch) but the wily fraudster managed to give as good as he got while still pretending to love the whole family unconditionally and wanting only the best for them.

When he left to go upstairs and meditate, the females of the household came in. Mel was so upset at losing Val that she was considering marrying Tartuffe out of spite, so that she could spend all his money and cuckold him at every opportunity. Danuta was, as usual, trying to talk some sense into her, while Emma hardly had a chance to say anything, but did her best to console Mel. When Charles arrived, he managed to stick his foot right in it, going on about how wonderful Tartuffe was, how proud he was to be the man’s friend and what an excellent husband he would make for Mel. At least that goaded her into declaring she wouldn’t marrying Tartuffe if he were the last man on earth – what a relief!

But then the arguments escalated. Danuta had her say, and was threatened with the sack, which gave the opportunity for a Brexit-based joke. Charles also threatened to banish Mel from the house unless she married Tartuffe, and as tempers rose, Emma finally snapped. She put forward a proposition to Charles: he would hide under the piano, now covered by the black cloth, and she would play out a little scene with Tartuffe to show her husband what sort of man he really was. He protested, of course, but she made an entertaining comparison between the future of their marriage and Monty Python’s dead parrot – she won the argument, naturally.

When Tartuffe came in he was suspicious of Emma’s provocative behaviour at first, checking behind the sofa to make sure there was no one lurking there, but she managed to arouse his interest by commenting on his different personas and making it clear she preferred the macho one. It was easy to get Tartuffe to insult Charles when he was in this mood, especially when Emma got that particular ball rolling herself, and the only snag was that Tartuffe wanted to get right down to the action immediately. She persuaded him to hold it in a little longer and get them both some drinks, which allowed Charles to creep out from under the piano for few moments.

He was already persuaded that Tartuffe was indeed a lying scoundrel, but Emma wasn’t prepared to let up the pressure just yet. While Tartuffe, off stage, suggested a threesome by adding Mel into the mix, Emma forced Charles back under the piano just before Tartuffe came back in with the refreshments. Charles finally came out of hiding when Tartuffe’s pants were round his ankles, and although Tartuffe made a valiant effort to spin this encounter as an attempt by Emma to help him, Tartuffe, get over the trauma of his mother’s prostitution, an attempt which unfortunately went too far, the scales had fallen from Charles’ eyes and he told the fraudster to get out.

Only it turned out that Charles wasn’t in any position to do that. All of his property had been transferred over to Tartuffe’s charity during the interval – an amazing turn of speed by Charles’ lawyers – so it was Charles and his family who would have to get out.

The final act opened with Charles and Clem discussing the situation. Charles had swung so far from his previous attitudes that Clem rightly identified him with Timon of Athens, going from generosity to misanthropy in a few short strides. Dan arrived to let them know he’d got an acting job, but seeing how upset Emma and Mel were, he wanted to know what had happened. He was followed almost immediately by Dame Pamela, also after information. While Dan was quite happy that his father had come to his senses, Pamela kept insisting that Charles had got it wrong, and in the process managed to be extremely insulting to everyone else there, especially Emma, who was shocked by her mother-in-law’s accusations. It was very funny.

While Charles was still trying to persuade his mother that Tartuffe was a fraud, he took a call from Number 10, sacking him.  Immediately after that, the doorbell went, and Danuta ushered in Des Loyal (Alan Coveney), senior hack at the Sunday Shocker, just in time to hear Charles threaten to kill Pamela. Des spent a little time chatting with Clem, a fellow journo, during which we learned that Mrs Loyal was very unhappy over a scam the year before in which she was swindled out of her savings. Then Charles tried to persuade Des not to run the top-Tory-sex-perv article he was planning to write based on Tartuffe’s lies, but Des knew his readership, so the alternative which Charles proposed simply wouldn’t do.

By the time Tartuffe came in to speak to Des, even Pamela had realised he wasn’t such a nice man. With no one in the house left to con, Tartuffe could let the mask down, and he did it in spades. He gave Emma the letter about her brain scan, which he’d already opened, and made it clear he’d been listening in on their phone calls. Dan was so furious he punched Tartuffe to the floor, but it was hopeless. Tartuffe was taking Des up to his room for the interview, and told the Ogdens to get out.

During this exchange, Des had been dictating into his smartphone, mentioning Charles and describing Dan as his “gay ‘actor’ son, Danny, twenty-four”. Dan complained that his name was Daniel and he was twenty-three – we laughed. As Des’ version of events developed, ditching some ideas to pick up on new ones, he also mentioned Emma’s age, and she corrected him by raising it, while later on Charles indignantly pointed out that he wasn’t sixty-three. All of these interjections were good fun, as was the finale of this play.

Before Tartuffe left with Des, Val arrived with some good news for the family. There was a legal precedent for overturning gifts made to others using ‘undue influence’ – Allcard vs Skinner (a real case) – and Val was confident that Charles could get his assets back. Before he got to this legal point, though, he detailed Tartuffe’s real background – not as described in Our Kid, naturally – and gave him his real name: Mr Tapper. Unfortunately for Tartuffe, he put the final piece of the jigsaw in place when he told Des he could call him Vic – Vic Tapper was the name of the man who had scammed Mrs Loyal out of her savings!

From this point on, Des was entirely on the side of the Ogdens. With the police closing in, Tartuffe wasn’t about to hang around and contest a legal action: he was off through the rose bushes – “that’s torn it nicely” (Des Loyal) – pursued by the boys in blue. Whew!

After their narrow escape, things settled down quite quickly in the Ogden household once Des had left with tomorrow’s headline ringing in our ears. Charles insisted, despite his mother’s protests, that he was giving up politics. Mel and Val were still awkward with each other, and while Dan was at the piano, playing gently, Emma tactfully recalled how well the couple had danced together at an earlier ball. Dan picked up the hint and began playing the tune, Mel held her arms out to Val, and soon they were in a close embrace, dancing slowly to the music. Clem and Charles had settled on the sofa, glasses of whisky in hand, and Clem asked Dan about the part he’d landed. It was in The Impostor by Moliere. He was playing the son, and it was going to be in modern dress. Not laugh-out loud funny, perhaps, but it was a nice way to end the piece.

Or was it? As the comfortable scene on stage froze, Tartuffe appeared on the left-hand stairs. He was off to America, where the pickings are richer. He had a sneer at us all for not recognising how easily we can all be conned, and then the action on stage started up again, with the characters ignoring Tartuffe as he continued to rant for a bit.

And that’s where it ended. Not the sharpest of finishes, and we’re still not sure what we were meant to take from the closing lines other than a general warning that fraudsters are everywhere and we’re deluding ourselves if we think we can’t be taken in, but the overall effect of the performance was so good that we’re not going to complain.

I haven’t managed to cover all of the play’s wonderful moments, but these notes give a general sense of this version. The performances were excellent, the adaptation to the modern day was superb, and despite the early lack of audience response we ended up exhilarated by it all. Roll on the next viewing in May.

© 2017 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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