Review by Rhys Tarling
By any measure, Tartuffe is an unqualified success: the contemporary spin heightens the comedy, the set design (Richard Roberts) is an appropriately decadent feast for the eyes, and there is not a weak link in the cast. It’s also the least challenging, and, for want of a better word, soulful, Black Swan production. But when it’s as endlessly amusing as this? Especially with it’s 2 and a half hour running time? That’s A-OK.
Based on one of the more famous Moliere plays, Tartuffe follows wealthy middle-aged patriarch Orgon (Steve Turner) and his somewhat dysfunctional family, though they are dysfunctional in the sort of quaint and funny way the Simpsons are dysfunctional. Orgon happens upon Tartuffe (Darren Gilshenan), a falsely pious con man mired in poverty. In fact he takes such a great liking to Tartuffe that Orgon can scarcely be without him, and so it’s up to Orgon’s family to expose Tartuffe as the swindler he is.
Playwright Justin Fleming maintains the poetry of the original text, but adds a few Australian slang words during key moments for maximum, and unexpected, hilarity. In this way the writing is quite textured and gives all these fine performers at least a few great moments. The sensible and lone voice of reason, family maid Dorine (Emily Weir, making her Black Swan debut), is the most recognisable as a modern Australian here, rough Queenslander twang and all, and she plays off wonderfully against the rest who adopt a far more pompous manner of speech, particularly the most pompous of them all, Orgon – their few scenes together exemplify Tartuffe‘s perfect mix of modern and old sensibilities.
Darren Gilshenan had the toughest job as Tartuffe, having to play a leery, lascivious creep who is also a clownish buffoon that’s okay to laugh at. Gilshenan succeeds and then some. A performance completely free of vanity, and seemingly unable to contain an undeniable smarminess even when fooling the gullible, Tartuffe is the kind of villain who’s actually fun to hate. The good-natured boos Gilshenan drew at the end were the highest compliment; he made an audience comprised mostly of middle aged folks feel like children again.
Steve Turner’s Orgon was something of a revelation to me. Perhaps it’s Turner’s adorable elfen-like features combined with a booming headmasterly voice that commands respects, or perhaps it’s Orgon’s place in the play as the gullible fool, but he was one of the few comedic straight men who was simultaneously, impossibly, the funniest character in Tartuffe. Indeed, with his impotent rage combined with a streak of foolishness, Turner seemed to be channeling John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty at times. Brilliant work by Steve Turner and director Kate Cherry.
Kate Cherry‘s nimble direction deserves a mention, too. She ably implements various strains of comedy – farcical situations, acidic insults, and a dose of satire at the end – to grant what is a simple story a certain kind of richness and flavour; setting aside its obvious entertainment value, this version of Tartuffe is an education in comedy. And the scene transitions, not content with being merely a thing of utility, are also a thing of beauty – stunningly lit by David Murray and gorgeous.
Tartuffe is as fun a time at the theatre as anyone could hope for, and a well directed affair to boot. Do go see.
Tartuffe runs until November 6 at the State Theatre Centre of WA’s Heath Ledger Theatre. For more information and tickets, visit the Black Swan website here.