Abbey Theatre, Dublin
If the eponymous villain of Molière’s satirical comedy takes his name from the earthy fungal delicacy of the truffle, the anti-hero’s underhand antics were so influential that his name became an etymological inspiration of its own. When the play premiered at Versailles in 1664, it was immediately banned, but Tartuffe’s devious piety achieved such notoriety that his name became shorthand for religious hypocrisy in English as well as in French.
In Frank McGuinness’s limber new version of the text – an impressive feat of rhyming that achieves the structure of the original – we hear about the “blessed paragon” Tartuffe long before we meet him. In an unscripted opening scene, however, director Caitríona McLaughlin provides a glimpse of him scourging himself in front of a halo light and a webcam while the Orgon household revels in debauchery in the next room.
McGuinness offers us the original setting for the play, but McLaughlin is keen to find contemporary resonance, and the result is mixed: mobile phones and modern music are not enough to ground the drama’s themes of duplicity and corruption. The question of “why now?” that hangs over every contemporary staging of a classic is thinly answered with another “why not?”.
Leaving aside the vacancy of greater purpose, there is much to enjoy about this effervescent production, which fizzes and froths with the infectious energy of great actors having a brilliant time. Pauline Hutton excels as Dorine, mouthy “hard chaw” and chief servant of the household, a welcome conspirator for Aislín McGuckin’s lively and louche Elmire.
Frank McCusker’s brainwashed Orgon is both comically bemused and pathetically vulnerable to influence, while, when he finally appears in act three, Ryan Donaldson’s Tartuffe brings to the stage the swagger and brag of an MMA fighter, an attitude that grows in physical expression as the drama moves on with the aid of Katie Davenport’s sensational costume design.
Davenport’s vision informs all aspects of the staging. A painted room with hidden doors and perspective anchors the luxurious super-rich style, where even the servants are clad in low-cut raw-silk dresses. It also provides the tools for much of the physical comedy that McLaughlin inflicts on the poor serving girl Filipote (Clare McKenna).
Philip Stewart’s composition and sound design conspire with Davenport’s visual signature to create an edgy, sexy Bridgerton feel, which the lighting designer Sinéad Wallace harnesses for several dance scenes choreographed by Paula O’Reilly, as well as the closing moments, when McGuinness’s script is sung by the men, and the women step off the stage towards the footlights.
There is a last-minute suggestion here of a gendered reading of the text, but it confuses rather than clarifies the preceding 130 minutes of action. It is better, then, as Tartuffe might advise, to submit to the pleasure of this sumptuous production than to ask questions about its deeper meaning.
Runs at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin 1, until Saturday, April 8th, then tours to the Lime Tree, Limerick (April 12th-15th), Black Box, Galway (April 18th-22nd), Lyric Theatre, Belfast (April 25th-29th), An Grianán, Letterkenny (May 3rd-6th) and Cork Opera House (May 9th-23rd)