Current Issue #488

Playwright Phillip Kavanagh Gets Under Tartuffe’s Skin

Playwright Phillip Kavanagh Gets Under Tartuffe’s Skin

The new adaptation of Moliere’s scandalous comedy Tartuffe is set to bring the centuries old French text into the ‘age of entitlement’ but maintain its historical context.

It’s not often that a 17th century French farce resonates strongly in our age, but an adaptation of Moliere’s immortal comedy Tartuffe from the State Theatre Company of SA and Brink Productions aims to change that.

The play, which follows the exploits of the profoundly hypocritical yet charismatic Tartuffe, was banned in France shortly after its release in 1664 because of implicit criticism of the Catholic Church and France’s bourgeoisie.

So often in contemporary theatre, classic texts such as Tartuffe are updated to a modern context. One might expect the powdered wigs and foppery of old France to be exchanged for the garb of modern-day hypocrites. Perhaps the setting could be a big corporation, and Tartuffe could wear a pin-striped power suit with a precisely gelled business haircut. No, says the adaptation’s writer, Phillip Kavanagh.

“It’s a new adaptation, but it’s still keeping the original context,” he says. “It’s allowing the period in which it was written and produced to speak to a modern audience.”


Having adapted the script for Brink and State Theatre Company over the course of a year, Kavanagh says the story’s themes are eternal and relevant to today’s political climate. Hypocrisy and ambiguity, it seems, never go out of style. Politicians at home and abroad, Kavanagh says, have a lot in common with the titular huckster.

“We’ve had a succession of leadership [in Australia] where issues are presented as something we need to take a really hard moral stance on,” says Kavanagh, “and then suddenly the opposite position is the one we need to take a stance on. I mean if you look at climate change policy, and asylum seeker policy, arts policy, there’s a lot of digging that needs to be done before you can understand what someone stands for other than power.”

Political developments in the US are also mirrored in Tartuffe, Kavanagh says, though not by design. It would seem that real-life characters like Donald Trump are kindred spirits with the play’s fictional lead. “Trump is lurking within the heart and soul of this production,” says Kavanagh.

“We keep coming back to Trump as a figure who has been able to gain so much power without us ever being sure what he believes in,” he says. “He’s so good at tapping into people with extremist views and stoke that fire, and that’s something that’s so inherent in the Moliere.”

Kavanagh’s process of adaptation took him through myriad versions of Moliere’s play, and gave him a deeper insight into how the show can be and has been interpreted over centuries.

“I don’t speak French, so in order to adapt the text, it was a process of reading about six or seven different versions in full, and sitting there as I worked moment by moment, beat by beat, action by action, line by line.

“There were some that were really quite radical departures, and they were useful to get that sort of big-picture thinking going, but then to actually go about the task of providing a workable, semi-literal translations, those big departures weren’t that useful for the task of writing.”


How then does his play differ from a 17th century French text written in rhyming couplets? Kavanagh says some elements of that classic farcical delivery will remain, but the comedy in particular has to be updated for a modern audience.

“Rather than it being an appreciation of the humour that would’ve been funny at the time, we’re just trying to make it funny,” he says. “And, you know, who knows whether that will work, but that’s been my task to make the relationship to the work as direct as possible. This is dangerous territory to talk about whether the comedy is failing or succeeding before you put it in front of an audience,” Kavanagh laughs.

Tartuffe will also include a prologue to draw audiences into an older era, and compare the issues of that time with our own debates around the ‘age of entitlement’. However, Kavanagh says his script doesn’t aim to provide answers or morally indoctrinate the audience.

“In our production we’re trying to take away the wink-and-nod evil villain that some adaptations portray him as, and trying to get to a really complex morally dubious character, where we don’t actually know what his centre is, and the more you look into that, the harder it is to get to what he stands for and what he believes in.

“In general I run away from answers, and I think it’s more about art being a place to explore complexities and ask questions than to present answers. I think hopefully if we come away having the right conversations and asking the right questions answers can be eked out in the real world.”

Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
Friday, November 4 until Sunday, November 20

Photos: Kate Pardy

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