20 February 2008
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse
The creatives and cast of Malthouse Theatre’s Tartuffe seduce the audience so convincingly that imperfections with the production become irrelevant.
It’s an intimidating task to adapt a classic work. Louise Fox remains true to Molière’s structure and characters, whilst delightfully playing with the language. (How could anyone resist rhyming Tartuffe with poof?) Grange, the Financial Review, Byron Bay and Desperate Housewives didn’t make the 17th century French original, but they set up many a contemporary reference and joke in this version. If Molière had a Facebook profile, I’m sure he too would have referenced it.
In this version we find ourselves in a suburb like Toorak, complete with its own pool and ornate faux French iron fencing. As always Anna Tregloan’s design beautifully supports the script and the space with an intelligent balance the practical and the aesthetic.
Living here are an indulged family, frustrated by their patriarch’s (and his mother’s) admiration and support of the very religious Tartuffe. With a cast including Marcus Graham, Alison Whyte, Barry Otto and Malthouse favourites Francis Greenslade and Peter Houghton, it would be difficult to be disappointed in cast. On a technical level, the scenes between Alison and Marcus are superb. There buzz from making an audience laugh is naturally addictive for a performer, but some of the clownish aspects of some performances could be better balanced. The clowning can be huge in this farce, but there was a bit of “look at me” acting, which really shouldn’t happen in a cast this experienced.
The build to Tartuffe’s entrance is structured perfectly. Certainly there is a lot of exposition in the first scenes, but we are eager to see the god-like presence that has taken over the household. Marcus doesn’t disappoint. His god-like entrance is as divine as it can be and we very soon discover how this Tartuffe was able to so thoroughly deceive and seduce. Getting over the fact that he is pleasing on the eye, Marcus’ delivers a complex and rounded character. He successfully elicits a degree of empathy and support for the character we could so easily despise – which makes his Act Two downfall even stronger.
The pace picks up significantly in Act Two as it heads to the unavoidable deus ex machina (used almost in its literal sense). I do wonder if a contemporary “king” may have been more relevant than the choice of Christian king or even a less obvious Christian image. It certainly worked in the context of the script, but in the context of Melbourne in 2008, there was something lacking. The final ironic twist may also have been more poignant with a different image of religion, belief or intervening deity.
Finally Matthew Lutton’s direction must be acknowledged. (He was assisting director Michael Kantor until a few weeks ago, when his own ironic deus ex machina intervention arrived when Michael became ill.) There are some hints of inexperience, especially in communicating in a big space, but otherwise the direction is tight, balanced and admirable. Act 1 would benefit from work on establishing the status and relationships of the characters through direction and performance, rather than relying on dialogue and exposition. And sometimes a joke for the sake of a laugh distracts too much from the story and doesn’t serve the script and production as a whole.
At the end of the night, Tartuffe is thoroughly enjoyable. It’s not the strongest or most relevant piece of theatre I’ve seen at the Malthouse, but it’s one that sets the bar high for the rest of season.
This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.
Photo by Jeff Busby.