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Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

Bell Shakespeare presents TARTUFFE, The Hypocrite, by Moliere, in a New Version, by Justin Fleming, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. 26 July -23 August.

TARTUFFE – The Hypocrite is a New Version of the Moliere play (1664) by Australian playwright, Justin Fleming, which was first presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) in 2008, as THE HYPOCRITE. It is now to be seen, presented by The Bell Shakespeare Company, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. Peter Evans, Co-Artistic Director of the Bell Company, once again directs, and this production, maybe, even better!

Firstly, and gleefully, this version of the text is a sensationally Aussie vulgarism of  style and vocabulary, and even verse structures, that still seems to have all the bright aptness of Moliere – I am no expert, of course – the Miles Malleson version (1960), the American translator, Richard Wilbur (1963), and the Signet Classic version by Donald M. Frame (2000) are what I have known before. I was caught laughing, often, out loud – as much for the comedy, as for the effect of the sheer audacity/surprises of some of the literary constructions crafted by Mr Fleming. I really, truly enjoyed myself very much. I was surprised, for Moliere has not always been ‘my cup of tea’ , although I, too, enjoyed Mr Fleming’s version of THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES by the Bell Shakespeare Company, in 2012.

All kudos, then, to Mr Fleming, indeed. A double congratulations.

The Set Design by Anna Cordingley, sweeps across the entire width of the Drama Theatre stage, providing a background of decaying, gaudy walls of red and gold. In the front is a collection of oversized furniture: an huge armoire, that on the opening of its large doors reveals, consecutively, wittily, various locations/settings for the action of the play; a toppled clock case – it provides a hiding place to over hear things; and a gigantic wheeled Chesterfield couch, that seats almost all the company at once! The ‘look’ provides a context for this production that has a foot in an inferred historic time and in its present pulse (the joke of the App screen was a trifle over-stated and over stayed its welcome). The costumes are, all, a clever mix of then and now, too – mostly, now (Kate Aubrey, is credited as an assistant to Ms Cordingley in the Design of this production). Lighting is by Paul Jackson, and the Composer is Kelly Ryall, who moves things along with a pastiche of the classic with some modern noises!

From the first scene when Jennifer Hagan, as pious Aunt Pernelle, in elegant full length evening dress and cloak strides onto the stage and bewitches us with her verbal dexterity and wit, her sense of timing, magnificent, decorated with physical gestures of some mastery to assist our comprehension to the word play, and more especially, conducting us, teaching us to give us, subliminally, a firm foundation to hear, it seems miraculously, the structures of Mr Fleming’s writer’s forms, we are, then, handed by her to each of the company who, too, have a practiced delight and relished skill for all the language circumlocutions, sparks and ‘spurs’: Robert Jago (Cleante), Kate Mulvany (Dorine), Geraldine Hakewill (Mariane), Charlie Garber (Damis), Sean O’Shea (Orgon), Helen Dallimore (Elmire), Tom Hobbs (Valere), and Leon Ford (Tartuffe). Support, too, from Russell Smith and Scott Witt in smaller contributions.

Ms Mulvany, as Dorine, delights in the traditional ‘naughty’ servant role with comic assurances, both, verbally and physically; Sean O’Shea, as the duped Master of the House, brings gentle comedy and a kind of pathos to Orgon’s simplicity of belief; whilst, Leon Ford is both elegant and eloquently equipped to reveal the cleverly duplicitous social and religious hypocrite, Tartuffe, who has an insatiable appetite for personal aggrandisement both of a personal and capitalist kind – the sexual grotesqueries of Tartuffe’s attempted seduction of Elmire are both oddly alluring and, yet, repulsive, all, at the same time. Ms Dallimore is a match to Mr Ford, in her contributions to this climatic episode of exposure – an hilarious triumph, for both actors. But, in truth, all make a remarkable dextrous ensemble. This is the strongest casting of a Bell production for some time – it gave us a splendid night. (N.B. This production will be only seen in Sydney – maybe a reason for its strong casting – no tour!).)

I hold reservations with the function of Mr Witt’s blithely supercilious, tedious ‘clown’ with candle, employed by Mr Evans, to cover scene changes, and did feel, that to play the ‘deus ex machina’, the God in the machine – the Figure of Judgement, in the climatic episode of the play – Mr Witt ought to have had the crowning verbal weight and power of a god – but, it was not to be, so the text and the crowning comedy of Mr Fleming’s jokey homage to Shakespeare was, mostly, diffused and lost – best if Mr Bell had, himself, taken it on, (I wonder if Laurence would have?) for the production/play point to succeed – a god indeed?

The hypocrisy that Moliere dared to expose in the court theatre of Louis XIV, so offended so many of his powerful enemies, that the play was banned from performance for many years. I felt that Moliere’s play had still terrible relevance in the Drama Theatre, in a week where we have had the publishing of HE WHO MUST BE OBEID ( Kate McClymont and Linton Besser – Random House); and the taking of the boat refugees to Nauru, via Australia; a truly shocking submission to Gillian Triggs of the Human Rights Commission as to the medical conditions provided for children under our care; let alone our elected government’s policies concerning the unemployed and poor of our community – led by declared Christian faithfuls as Federal Government Ministers of responsibility, led, as some wag had told me, by 2 bishops, an abbot(t), and educated Jesuit men. The family of Orgon is so enmeshed in the machinations of Tartuffe, in this cauterising comic fiction, that only the theatrical intervention of the ‘deus ex machina’ can clean up the mess and save Orgon and his family from total ruin – I wondered what can save our mess, our conscience and reputations in our, only, too real world – a Godly intervention, ha, ha! – Not bloody likely. A war, perhaps?! (Tomorrow is August 4th – 100 years since the start of the War to End All Wars.)

This TARTUFFE from the Bell Company is a wonderful and timely presentation, and despite the knowledge that you may be made more aware that our own values are being right-royally ‘tartuffed’, the outrageousness of this version of Moliere’s play is a must to be caught. Its pertinence appreciated.

Highly recommended. Don’t miss it.