Tartuffe is a cautionary tale: an outrageous, long winded interrogation of religion and deceit. Originally premiered in France in 1664, Phillip Kavanagh adapts it for the modern, Australian audience.
The story opens with the family of patriarch, Orgon (Paul Blackwell) in a collective protest. He has fallen under the spell of fraudulent Tartuffe (Nathan O’Keefe) who has taken advantage of his good nature and swindled him into doing his bidding. Orgon, in defiance of his disgruntled family, announces Tartuffe will marry his daughter Marianne (Rachel Burke), who is already engaged to her true love Valere (Antoine Jelk).
Tartuffe, underneath his ‘I-am-god’s-mouth-piece’ pretence, is really a backstabbing slime ball. He cracks onto Orgon’s wife, Elmire, and the family make a plan to expose Tartuffe for what he really is. The plan works, but Orgon in a momentary rage with his family, had already signed over his house and worldly possessions to Tartuffe. The whole dilemma crescendos, morality prevails, and it all ends with a neat conclusion.
Despite there being a lot of buzz we don’t actually meet Tartuffe for quite some time. Mid-play Tartuffe waltz’s into the mix with tight black jeans and long greasy hair. He is physically reminiscent of Jesus but also your run of the mill heart throb hipster, typically found lurking in night-spots on a Friday night. He is by all accounts a bit of a shit; the type of fellow parents keep their sons and daughters well away from. Nathan O’Keefe as Tartuffe is gross and intolerable. His performance carries the piece: understated, calculated and very funny.
In perhaps one of the most memorable scenes, Tartuffe and Elmire (Astrid Pill) let loose in an entanglement of complete hilarity and body parts. In this scene, Pill meets O’Keefe’s repulsive sex with triumphant womanhood: together they are a masterpiece of tension, irony and charged up sin.
The story is not designed to deliver us particularly profound moments but Kavanagh’s modern adaptation is clever, relevant and engaging. The references to popular culture, global politics and constant sexual innuendo keep us laughing and along for the ride.
Chris Drummond’s direction has the chaos in check and provides a platform for the actors to use the story as a living entity. The set design supports the themes of hypocrisy and deception: four enormous candle-lit chandeliers adorn the marble stage, offsetting the grotesque artifice of 17th bourgeoisie France in a church like glow.
Tartuffe is a marathon effort and the cast do a superb job of keeping up an energy and pace. They are a well-oiled machine of comic timing: nuanced and self-possessed. Genuinely engaged onstage, their skill generates a necessary lightness to the story. Each member brings a genius to their role and as a troupe they complement one another.
Tartuffe continues at the Dunstan Playhouse until Sunday, November 20