Written all the way back in 1664, Molière’s revered comedy Tartuffe has made its debut at the Theatre Royal Market. Originally in French, and so adapted by Christopher Hampton, and obviously traditionally set in seventeenth century France, Gérald Garutti’s production is relocated to Los Angeles, California, under Donald Trump’s presidency. In both English and French with surtitles, the play looks at issues that plagued both Molière’s world, and the modern day, like religious extremism, materialism in society, right-wing ideologies, the list of themes that can be applied to 2018 goes on.
The story is set in the home of the wealthy French media-mogul Orgon (Sebastian Roché), his wife Elmire (Audrey Fleurot), children Mariane (Olivia Ross) and Damis (George Blagden) and their house staff, Dorine (Claude Perron) and Cléante (Vincent Winterhalter). Tartuffe is a spiritual evangelical, supposedly a man of God. Orgon regards him as a sort of guru, but to everyone else, aside from Orgon’s mother Madame Pernelle (Annick Le Goff), he’s nothing more than a conman. Roché is suitably besotted with Tartuffe as Orgon, and his obsession with him almost reaches into a sexual desire. Perron delivers much of the play’s humour. She is frank and entertaining, quick-witted and sarcastic, all while impressively dipping in and out of both languages. Fleurot and Winterhalter share this same sardonic humour, Fleurot being especially captivating in the scene in which she allows Tartuffe to practically molest her, to prove his disingenuousness to her husband.
The contemporary setting, however, is mostly lost. The only consistent reminder of our new location and period is Andrew D Edwards’ striking set design, an enclosed white cube surrounded by fluorescent light looking out onto the stage, acting as another room into which the characters can see into and out of. President Trump is also far from our minds, until the very last scene in which a White House officer turns up in what looks like a CIA Agent Halloween costume, and delivers a monologue crammed full of references and quotes by the Donald as he arrests Tartuffe, and suddenly it’s all pussy grabbing, Twitter mentions and Mar-A-Lago, like a big supersized American slap in the face. It’s rather a lot, and a little too late in the day.
Molière’s incredible gift for humour is thankfully still preserved, and perhaps Garutti’s decision to place Tartuffe in twenty-first century LA might’ve been to make the play feel current, to make it more palatable for a younger crowd. If that were the case, he needn’t have done it, as the result just feels a little cheapened. Molière’s work is so purely funny, so ridiculous, that I’m not sure it needs an update. Tartuffe is still highly amusing, and still incredibly relevant, but this production’s stylish update isn’t executed well enough to make it worthwhile.
Tartuffe is playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 28 July
Photo: Nick Pearce