It was written more than 350 years ago but in Blanche McIntyre's lavish, updated version of Moliere's classic comedy Tartuffe (Lyttelton Theatre at the National) it appears very much a play for today.
Orgon is the man who has everything: money, power, a beautiful home and family. A former military man who has acquired his wealth through morally dubious means, lately he has been questioning the point of it all. When he comes under the influence of Tartuffe, a vagrant turned guru, whom he perceives as having spiritual purity, he invites him into his seemingly perfect household, and the stranger unleashes a whirlwind of deception and seduction that threatens everything. With Orgon under Tartuffe's spell, can his family outwit this scheming trickster? Are Tartuffe's wild claims truth or fiction? This mysterious stranger may not be quite the villain he seems.
This scalpel-sharp comedy addresses subjects that are pressingly current: the spiritual neediness of the rich, the power of religious zealots to manipulate the unwary and the slippery nature of truth.
John Donnelly's reimagined new version modernises the play–it is set in Highgate in the present day–yet treats the source text with care and it works. Blanche McIntyre's production takes a while to settle in and exert its grip–there are a few longueurs in the first half. But the physical comedy is handled well, notably when Orgon's stylish wife Elmire tries to trick Tartuffe into seducing her. Gradually, too, Donnelly's political anger becomes clear. Amid the broad humour and cheeky topical gags, there's a sense of the hazards of inequality and the ugly ways society treats outsiders.
Robert Jones's gorgeous eye-opening set with its teal walks, huge windows and beautiful chandelier, lovingly lit by Oliver Fenwick, certainly conveys a true sense of opulence.
Kevin Doyle makes a neurotic and unscrupulous Orgon, an almost unrecognisable Olivia Williams is excellent as his second wife Elmire, Kitty Archer impresses as his confused daughter Mariane, whom Orgon tries to force into marrying Tartuffe, while Hari Dhillin as his suave brother-in-law Cleante, represents the voice of reason. Denis O'Hare, meanwhile, as Tartuffe, gives this so-called imposter a measured mix of creepiness and charisma and conveys a marvellous lack of moral fibre.
This fresh, funny and thoughtful production shows that the play has lost none of its sparkle.
Runs until 30 April 2019 at National Theatre (Lyttelton auditorium).
Box office: 0290 7452 3000.Last modified: April 6, 2021