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Holier Than Thou: Moliere’s Tartuffe Review

– by Owen Scrivener

When Moliere wrote Tartuffe, Louis the Fourteenth was a young king flanked by puritanical advisors obsessed with sobriety and ecclesiastical politics. Louis was frivolous, a lover of music, art, architecture, dance and song. There were disconnects between the king and the cynics he inherited from his devoutly Catholic mother, Anne of Austria.
Filled with blasphemous depictions of holy-men nearly ravaging married women, Tartuffe was right up young Louis’ alley.

In it the open-minded worshipers of God are derided by house lord Orgon as atheists as they fail to fare against the pious, charitable Tartuffe. Orgon promises the hand of his daughter Mariane to Tartuffe, even though she’s betrothed to Valere. Tartuffe however has keen eyes for Orgon’s wife, Elmire. The mess that ensues is very much the stuff of late-17th century French parody.

On Tuesday I sat in on an Australian adaptation at the State Theatre in Northbridge. Directed by Kate Cherry, the famous story written by seventeenth century play-write Jean-Baptiste Poquelin “Moliere” was given a splash of modern Aussie lingo, entirely in loosely rhyming prose.

It was hysterical. The wit and charm of the new writing breathed life into a comedy that would otherwise be a stale period-faithful pantomime. The story is however a genuine piece of entertainment. We stayed for the comedic gildings of the stage choreography and convincing moments of drama.

I don’t think there was a moment on set not executed with total devotion to character. Darren Gilshenan is a loathsome grub as Tartuffe, Steve Turner bumbling and servile as the gullible husband Orgon. But my favourite performance would have to be Emily Weir as Dorine the maid. Her character is incredibly believable and likeable throughout the two-act performance. She’s a sexy Devil’s advocate stirring up comical brilliance through her interactions with Orgon, Mariane (Tessa Lind) and Valere (James Sweeney).

The set was amazing, a full scale rotating structure pulled right out of a 1960s home-ware magazine. Heck the furnishing gave me decor ideas. The costuming was brilliant, Elmire (Alison Von Reeken) had an ever changing wardrobe and each piece was incredible, and Tartuffe’s grubby robes and sandles won’t leave me anytime soon. The lighting, makeup and hair were all fantastic. Everything on that stage was right.

I did have some issues with the music which seemed to be technofied arrangements of French baroque music, they came off as shrill. But the acoustics were perfect, the actors were clear even above the laughter of the audience.

The audience absolutely bought it. The whole play was a roller-coaster of tragic hysteria and comical disaster, there were laughs, cringes and gasps. The hilarity in the spotlight was genuinely despicable.

There was genuine malice towards Tartuffe at role-call, and this is what’s so wonderful. He represents a character we’ve become all too familiar with, the unwittingly transparent pervert with a righteous face that gullible humans trust. This satire could easily regard Australian or even American polity. Moliere’s genius transcends his service to a monarch into a secular contemporary context.

Kate Cherry gives this wonderful farce an edgy modern character, a lick of new paint and humour that resonates with an Australian audience.

I would advise a viewing, the show runs at the State Theatre until November 6.

Image from Black Swan Theatre

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