Tartuffe | Malthouse TheatreMarcus Graham and Alison Whyte. Photo - Jeff Busby

In the Malthouse Theatre poster for a sublimely gaudy adaptation of Moliere’s comedy, Orgon holds Tartuffe just as Mother Mary did while mourning the death of Jesus. Barry Otto sits like a king, part Orgon, part mother - a gender-bending, drag-faring Mary holding Marcus Graham as Tartuffe, as poseur, as gay pin up, as Mephistopheles in aviator sunglasses. And in these androgynous arms, Tartuffe lays in repose, godlike, cheating ageing, cheating the fall of gravity, cheating death.

This homoerotic Pieta image, this irreverent icon is a telling appetizer for a delightful makeover of an ageless tale. Moliere’s famous 1664 comedy scandalized the French court, requiring a Kingly intervention to prevent its censorship and landing it as a wry critique of class, piety and aristocracy back in the day. Sinning in private is fare game for theatre in any epoch - and as the Gallic bard himself penned - To create a public scandal is what's wicked; To sin in private is not a sin.

In Director Matthew Luton’s production, Moliere’s Paris salons, dripping with aristocracy, patriarchal power and old money get a Kath and Kim makeover, Toorak style. Writer Louis Fox has kept deftly to the heart of Moliere’s wit, somewhat awkwardly to the meter of his rhyme, neatly interwoven contemporary taboos and ably transmuted the play for Melbourne today. Into the burbs of new money where Armani suits, Manolo Blahnicks, crass popular culture rule the day and white wedding dresses look like chiffon meringues.

Barry Otto is delectably cast as Orgon, the fumbling head of an extended family, overseer of a wealthy household, king of a tastelessly decorated estate and ruler of improper vested interests. Unlike their faltering patriarch, Orgon’s family is wise to the deceptions of the new age self-appointed prophet impostor with Buddhist leanings, Tartuffe (Marcus Graham). Orgon fails to see the hypocrisy, the ulterior motives. It is Orgon’s myopia, his guileless faith, and his blind zealotry, which undoes him in the end.

Tartuffe has his sights set on quick riches, and in his criminal stride he wears a deceptively godlike mask. A respectful protégé, a spiritual confidante, a sharp mind, the compliant loving son Orgon never had, and a muse no less. In this tale, Tartuffe seduces Orgon’s wife, strikes a sharp rift between Orgon and his two children, his son, his daughter and their rightful claim to inheritance and in the process tries to anally abuse his mentor. Graham is perfectly cast as a man on the brink of middle age, an eternal party boy, confused by desire, corrupted by power, bewildered by both masculinity and femininity, bereft of growing older gracefully. It is always a great pleasure to see this magical, nimble, mercurial actor. At times Graham’s Tartuffe almost reprises the same eroticism as his stage character Franknfurter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, so many productions ago.

It is Russian House-servant Dorine (Rebecca Massey) who brings down both Orgon and Tarfuffe. Two men on a misguided ascendency, two men who really need bringing down, their noses in the earth, their feet on the ground. Dorine is the truthseeker, observing between the lines, observing the lies beneath the mask. It is this humble, though outspoken, hilarious and tempestuous woman of service, brilliantly nuanced in Massey’s gestures and strident performance, who sees beyond the veils of hypocrisy, is the seer of all private sins, the bon savant forging ever forward.

Orgon’s second wife Elmire (Alison Whyte), is a fine match for Tartuffe’s split persona, and the troubled masculinity, the power struggles, that comes with middle age. At first, Elmire, sensuously portrayed by Whyte, is enamoured by Tartuffe’s charisma, seduced by his charm, beholden to his calm, beguiled by his compassion, awakened by his libidinal stirrings, all qualities that she craves, qualities that are missing from her marriage to the weak and aging husband Orgon. Ultimately, her intuitions unnerve Tartuffe, and brings about his demise, his undoing. As Elmire turns self interest towards the greater good, the welfare and care of her charges and newly acquired, non genetic family, Tartuffe comes unstuck. Whytes performance lingers long after the curtain falls, perhaps it is her part dance, part burlesque, part comic delivery that arouses the memory so.

Peter Houghton rises to the great character roles in Matthew Luton’s production - the pampered pooch, pot smoking pool cleaner and Jesus - hilarious in all three roles.

And this production is a wicked version no less, casting sin - as we once knew it - front and centre into the footlights. Kinky sex, homoeroticism, foul language, foul play, just ripe enough for the very same season when Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras makes it’s annual claim and a timely post script for the recently departed Melbourne Midsumma Festival. The Malthouse highlight sits well in this context. Art, artfulness that tempers, transmutes patriarchal power and helped us all pull the rug from beneath the zealots, bigots and “devots” in Australian society, in religious orthodoxies, all old school orthodoxies. Director Matthew Luton has delivered us Moliere’s comedy as an immersive, adrenalin pumped baptism of camp. Intelligent. Irreverent. Entertaining. Soulful. Political. Moliere would be chuffed methinks.

Malthouse Theatre presents
by Moliere | adapted by Louise Fox

Venue: Merlyn Theatre
Dates: (Tues – Sun) Feb 15 – March 8
Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au

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