sat 13/07/2024

Tartuffe, Theatre Royal Haymarket review - dual-language production loses its way | reviews, news & interviews

Tartuffe, Theatre Royal Haymarket review - dual-language production loses its way

Tartuffe, Theatre Royal Haymarket review - dual-language production loses its way

Parlez-vous Moliere? His greatest comedy falls flat in a bilingual version

Molière misled: Audrey Fleurot as Elmire and Paul Anderson as a new-age guru TartuffePhoto: Helen Maybanks

The idea of producing a classic play in a mix of two languages is pretty odd. What kind of audience is a bilingual version of Molière’s best-known comedy aiming at, you wonder. Homesick émigrés? British francophiles with rusty A-level French? Neither constituency is likely to be satisfied by this curious dish that is neither fish nor fowl.

Paul Anderson, best known as Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders but now affecting a dodgy southern-states drawl, is Tartuffe, redrawn in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation as a new-age guru. Proclaiming the spiritual benefits of celibacy and poverty, he has inveigled his way into the Bel Air mansion of the gullible Orgon (Sebastian Roché, of HBO’s The Young Pope), and soon comes within an inch of marrying the daughter, sleeping with the wife and disinheriting the whole lot of them.Sebastian Roché and the cast of 'Tartuffe'Hampton’s text retains roughly half of Molière’s elegant, flowery French original, whose 12-syllable metre and strict but complex rhyme scheme gives every speech a crisp formality. Elsewhere – apparently at random – Hampton turns parts of the text into English blank verse, which next to the French sounds jarringly casual. Why two languages anyway? We never know.

“Take amyl nitrate if you want to laugh”, says the French-speaking matriarch (Annick Le Goff), scolding her adult grandchildren for disrespecting their house guest. But it’s advice the audience might well take to heart, for comedy is hard to come by in this linguistic mashup. Orgon’s offspring speak mainly English, unaccountably with a Home Counties rather than Californian accent, while their father switches back and forth between pukka RP and French. And all the while your eyeballs are swivelling madly in an effort to determine which of at least eight surtitle screens is the least distracting to use. Quel gâchis!/What a godawful mess!

Across the cast only Roché (pictured above with the cast), who has both English and French as mother tongues, is fully convincing in both. Even the wondrous Audrey Fleurot (the flame-haired lawyer from Spiral), so gutterally seductive and tonally in control in French, is neutered by switching into English. But as least she stresses the right syllables, which can’t be said for everyone. Presumably the director Gérald Garutti thought no voice coach necessary, as none is credited.Paul Anderson and Audrey FleurotAndrew D Edwards’ stage design is imposing – but not in a good way. A large lighted cube with a tiled interior, it’s like a Hockney swimming pool tipped on its side – just the kind of hard, shiny, room-size artwork that a billionaire would install in his home. The trouble comes when the cube (pictured above, with Fleurot and Anderson) has to do service both as the private room that Tartuffe chooses for his tryst with Fleurot’s Elmire and the table that Orgon famously hides under in what must count as one of the most excruciating scenes of cuckoldry ever. It should also be very funny. But the awkward blocking imposed by the cube drains all comedy from the wife’s frantic unheeded pleas for her husband to intervene and brings Harvey Weinstein unpleasantly to mind.

And yet the updating of Molière’s satire to modern-day Tinseltown, epicentre of the modern world’s most potent belief system, was a good enough idea. As was turning the deus ex machina into an emissary from the White House. But the fact that this speech got the only big laugh of the night was an indictment of the whole sorry project.

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