Left – Steve Turner and Darren Gilshenan. Cover – Steve Turner, Darren Gilshenan and Alex Williams. Photos – Daniel James Grant
Kate Cherry has left us with a few parting gifts before she jets off to her new gig at NIDA: the 2017 season program and the final show of the 2016 season, Tartuffe. Moliere’s time-honoured comedy gets a revamped script courtesy of playwright Justin Fleming, and Cherry gives his script plenty of rib-tickling embellishments. For a comedy written mid-17th century, Tartuffe 2016 is surprisingly fresh, lively and plenty of fun.
Cherry has assembled an expert cast of lovable kooks to occupy the split-level rotating set designed by Richard Roberts that serves as the family dwelling. Jenny Davis enters at the top of the show as Madame Pernelle, looking a reasonable facsimile of Arrested Development’s matriarch Lucille Bluth in pink faux Chanel, and sets the tone for the show’s particular linguistic style: rhyming couplets. Davis gets into a verbal sparring match with the maid, Dorine, played by the formidable young upstart Emily Weir. In fact, it’s Weir that dominates the entire first half, and her command of the language and the stage is frighteningly good, given that she’s only just entered into the professional sphere.
The family paints a terrible picture of the eponymous, odious, sycophantic Tartuffe (Darren Gilshenan), who has wormed his way into the family against the better judgment of everyone except Madame Pernelle and Orgon (Steve Turner). Orgon is oblivious to Tartuffe’s duplicitous nature, and proceeds to hand over everything, including his daughter to him. We don’t actually meet Tartuffe until well into the middle of the first half, so a considerable amount of anticipation has been built up, and we can’t wait to lay eyes on this awful guy.
At last Glishenan appears, flagellating himself, looking like a new-age hippie friar, if such a thing exists. He frequently wears an expression that’s both angelic and devilish, and manages to be both obsequious and disarming. Good thing, too, otherwise we’d never believe Orgon would allow him such intimate access to his entire realm. Turner’s Orgon is completely invested in Tartuffe, hinting at the kind of zealot that could become very dangerous in political spheres. Fortunately for this story, he’s only blind to the needs of his immediate family, chiefly his wife and daughter, and they suffer terrible humiliations because of it.
Alison Van Reeken, the only cast member to get a new costume in each scene, is Orgon’s elegant wife Elmire, the object of Tartuffe’s desire. Her handling of his unwanted attention will be familiar to women, and we collectively cringe with her. Tessa Lind is Mariane, the already engaged daughter that Orgon promises to Tartuffe, and as she agonizes with Weir about her impending life sentence over a tub of ice cream, a bottle of bubbly, a cigarette and an inhaler, she’s an endearing mess.
With support from Hugh Parker as Orgon’s rebel-without-cause son Damis, James Sweeney as the ‘jilted’ boyfriend Valere, and Hugh Parker as Elmire’s no-nonsense brother, the show’s energy spikes in the second half, when we get to witness Tartuffe’s deviousness in action. Cherry pushes the physical comedy into high gear, and the house really starts rocking on its turntable. But even the scene changes are fun to watch, with the cast striking poses in silhouette against vibrant washes of colour on the backdrop, courtesy of lighting designer David Murray. The house party vibe continues with thumping beats from composer Tony Brumpton.
Tartuffe is a signature Kate Cherry production – stylish, funny, a little wicked, a lot of visual appeal, a reverence of the classic, and a firm hold on the here-and-now.
Black Swan State Theatre Company & Queensland Theatre present
Director Kate Cherry
Venue: Heath Ledger Theatre | State Theatre Centre of WA
Dates: 26 Oct – 6 Nov 2016
Bookings: ticketek.com.au | 1300 795 012