From the moment the audience lights were dimmed and we were introduced to the bizarrely dressed maid Dorine (Mandy McElhinney) going about her domestic duties with an insolent air, I knew we were in for a treat. Stephen Curtis’s set consisted of two pieces of period French furniture plus a cardboard box, a glass table and two plastic chairs, and his costumes approximated a seventeenth-century French style undercut by miniskirts, bouffon (and worse) hairdos and extraordinary shoes. Enter Madame Pernelle (Kerry Walker) in a voluminous blow-up dress with bag to match and the tone was set for the night. The pantomime was in town.
What a novel way to tart up a dusty seventeenth-century play, a favourite with Louis XIV. Not that it was necessary to vulgarise Tartuffe, Molière’s title for the play. Justin Fleming had already done a fabulous job of translating the original, capturing the earthy quality of the French with contemporary Australian slang and references. No mean feat, since the French play was written in rhyming couplets. Fleming, who was there to take a bow, kept many of the rhyming couplets but rearranged the rhyming order of other lines to suit the English language and the characters. The actors did a fine job of using these unusual rhythms of speech to enhance the comedy.
The play revolves around the character of a religious hypocrite Tartuffe (Kim Gyngell), who has wormed his way into the affluent home of Orgon (Garry McDonald). Orgon is blind to Tartuffe’s hypocrisy until the villain is finally unmasked. We are threatened with a tragic ending before a theatrical device switches the characters’ fortunes once again. The plot cannot be taken seriously, even if the moral issues are under serious scrutiny. Much of the play is taken up with diatribes by Orgon’s family, attempts to discredit the intruder and uphold their own moral code. Although the young Louis XIV gave it the thumbs up, it was banned for five years as an insult to the religious community.
Outstanding among the household members is McDonald, who blasts on to the stage with a tempestuous energy, sweeping the play along in a torrent of words. A consummate comedian, he uses his body and voice to underline key phrases and define his character. The director (Peter Evans) makes full use every actor’s talents for comedy, creating a cast of absurd caricatures, ranging from Orgon’s spoilt brats – the petulant daughter in pink Mariane (Sara Gleeson) and the barely contained emo son in orange Damis (Chris Ryan) – to the wildly imagined Flipote and jovial bearer of bad news Monsieur Loyal (both played with relish by James Wardlaw). Marina Prior is perfect as the alluring Elmire, Orgon’s wife, rising to a comic climax in the seduction scene. Most memorable, though, was her spontaneous response to what could have been a fatally early entry by Tartuffe. That brought the house down.
The exception to the cast of colourful caricatures is Tartuffe, who appears in black jeans and turtleneck, with greasy hair and black spectacles, a slimy toad incarnate. Gyngell is unwavering in maintaining this unsavoury character, showing not even a redeeming love of poetry in his rendition of the text. He takes his character description - a bum who has come in off the street and taken over the house - literally. This justifies the hatred he inspires in almost all around him, but perhaps a little more evidence of self-love, of love of his own hollow homilies, would have made him more interesting and done justice to Fleming’s and Molière’s words.
Another dimension was added to the play by the use of a musician/actor (Bert Labonte) behind a one-way mirror. His casual guitar and the playful musical score created a mood of light-heartedness and mockery. Labonte’s relaxed manner was that of a chorus or amused god commenting with irony on the action below.
This is a production that relies on boldness for its impact. Even the lighting (by Matt Scott) avoids the subtle and goes for the big and brassy. Strongly lit from the side as well as illuminated by overhead chandeliers, the impression is of opulence and brilliance, an ambience in which the reptilian Tartuffe cannot survive for long. Translated for the twenty-first century, The Hypocrite is pure entertainment and this production brings the MTC’s year to a resounding close. The company is going from strength to strength.
Melbourne Theatre Company Presents
A new version of Molière’s Tartuffe
by Justin Fleming
Director: Peter Evans
Starring: Garry McDonald, Kim Gyngell, Marina Prior, Ashley Zukerman, Sara Gleeson, Mandy McElhinney, Kerry Walker, Chris Ryan, Nicholas Bell, Bert Labonte, James Wardlaw and Martin Sharpe
Venue: the Arts Centre, Playhouse
Dates: 8 November – 13 December 2008
Times: Monday – Tuesday 6.30pm, Wednesday – Friday 8pm, Saturday 8.30pm, Matinees Wednesday 1pm and Saturday’s 4pm
Tickets: $28.50 - $75.30
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 723 038 or www.mtc.com.au