Tartuffe: Large as Life and Twice as Natural

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Sylvaine Strike’s touring production of Moliere’s ‘Tartuffe’ touched down in Durban for a short run and played at the DUT’s Courtyard Theatre. It impressed with its energy, vibrancy and a semi-nouveau mix of theatrical styles and genres. A comedy of manners, exposing the hypocrisy of the church, the original play, written in rhyming couplets, was banned by the church at the time. Its exposure of false piety, corruption and the manipulation of the gullible remains relevant and applicable (PIC: Craig Morris & Neil McCarthy Photo by Dee-Ann Kaaijk)

The multi award-winning Fortune Cookie Theatre Company, which was responsible for the runaway success of ‘The Miser’ in 2012, was commissioned to interpret Moliere’s ‘Tartuffe’. Choosing the rhyming translation by Richard Wilbur gave a strong connection to the original text. The set, a plant- filled conservatory, with its delicate metal scrolls and peach-coloured voile hangings, offered a versatile playing space allowing for all the comings and goings and concealments necessary to the script. The sliding double doors gave much opportunity for dramatic entrances and exits. The costumes, designed by Sasha Ehlers, took their inspiration from the late 1920s and revelled in soft pastels and chalks. 

The stellar cast, comprising some of South Africa’s most accomplished and experienced thespians, were kept seriously on their toes by the choice of extreme commedia dell’ arte style physicality, with intense posturing, gesturing and gesticulation. Sometimes the extremity of movement, especially when there was much milling about the stage in a slapstick sort of way, detracted from the dialogue, or rather, distracted from the meaning.

Moliere’s classic play exposes the egoism and stupidity of more than the poor hoodwinked father, Orgon, somewhat overplayed with lofty elegance by Neil McCarthy. The lovers, Mariane and Valere, played by Vuyelwa Malileke and Anele Situlweni respectively, fall into the trap of manipulating each other out of affection. Without the redoubtable Dorine, performed by Vanessa Cook with a great deal of gleeful capering, their love would not have survived their petty jealousies and insecurities.

Khutjo Green in the role of the wise wife Elmire controlled her scenes with cool effectiveness and Adrian Alper played the volatile and impatient son Damis with pixie-like lightness of foot. The voice of reason, the philosophically inclined, intelligent and refined uncle, Cleante, has some of the play’s most interesting and intellectually arresting concepts; his well-considered lines played with consciousness and energy by Camilla Waldman.  William Harding brings presence to his multiple roles of M. Loyal, the guard and the visually extravagant Flipote.             

Tartuffe, played without his acolyte, is channelled by physical theatre expert Craig Morris, who commands his physical, vocal and emotional expressions to the last lift of the eyebrow; moving with ravishing swiftness from the lusty, gluttonous, lying and conniving fiend  to the ostentatiously humble and self sacrificing penitent. It is a big role in every way and Morris claims it with relish. The directorial choice to give ambiguity to his religious affiliation gave a broader scope to his hypocritical devotions and parasitical nature.

It is a relief that all ends well…or almost well! While the family members, torn apart and upended by the inclusion of the conniving Tartuffe in their happily ordered if terribly bourgeois lives, are able to regain their losses and their loves, our ‘hero’ has the last word, wordlessly. Corruption lives on, everyone has their price and the Tartuffes of the contemporary world continue to get away with their crimes.   

'Tartuffe' is currently being performed at the Johannesburg Theatre. Run concludes 25 June 2017. For a sneak peek view the trailer below.

Tartuffe’s national tour is sponsored by IFAS and South African Alliance Francaise as well as corporate funders and it was a pleasure to see this toothsome and thought-provoking play performed on our local stage. 


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