I catch Leon Ford while he is stalking down the street. I could simply say he is walking or strolling, but even on the phone I can hear the man’s stride. It makes me picture him as some kind of secret agent, on the phone to MI5 while a bomb is about to explode in a baby somewhere. He’s probably wearing a trench coat, too, and looks a lot like John Barrowman. When not thwarting explosive infants, Ford spends his time rehearsing one of theatre’s greatest (if not most widely recognised) villains: charismatic confidence man Tartuffe.

While several characters from Tartuffe are considered some of the greatest roles in the canon of Western theatre, playwright Molière hasn’t quite achieved the same kind of street cred as similar heavyweights. Shakespeare and Brecht remain famous, but as popularity goes the 17th century Frenchman remains somewhat obscure.

“Well, I think it depends who you speak to,” says Ford. “Certainly I’d rate him as highly as any of the big superpowers of Western theatre. Beyond the obvious language barrier and depending on who your translator is. A lot of the MoliПre that I’ve read, the Penguin Classics and such, have translated it so exactly they can’t do the rhyming couplets, simply because it rhymes in French but not in English. So it loses that poetry that someone like Shakespeare has in the original language. But Justin Fleming has quite cleverly managed to translate it very close to the original without losing those couplets or the rhythm. Hopefully that gets us even closer to what it would be like for a native French speaker.”

Tartuffe tells the story of the eponymous villain charming the head of a content and prosperous family – the faithful if easily manipulated Orgon – into granting him control of almost every facet of its affairs. Neither money nor flesh is safe from Tartuffe’s salvation as his Machiavellian spirituality pushes Orgon to the brink of ruin. That said, the production is not without comedy, and given that the dialogue is presented entirely as rhyming couplets, there is great potential for characters to swing from cheekiness to despair in quick succession.

“While we’re definitely not steering away from the comedy, we are looking at why people do follow these preacher figures,” says Ford. “What’s missing in their lives when these figures come along, these enigmatic leaders with very little of substance to say but with this power over people? What is it in a person’s life that makes them need someone like that? And what it is in the conman’s make-up that makes him want to lead people so astray and destroy lives?”

In preparing for the Bell Shakespeare production of Tartuffe, Ford found himself drawn to the motivation of these shucksters and religious frauds – not just throughout history, but those who are still active today. For inspiration, it is hard to go past the bastion of pomp and zealotry that is the USA’s Bible Belt.

“I’ve watched a lot of documentaries and videos about these Evangelical preachers, who are so convincing, are so charming and disarming and enigmatic, that I think there must be a part of them up there onstage, much like an actor, that does actually believe it. I can’t actually believe that they truly believe, but I think there must be a part of them that does think speaking in tongues or putting your palm on someone’s forehead and trying to cure them of blindness can be real. The power must get to their head so much that they do think they are some kind of channel or vessel of a higher spirit. Who knows? Who knows how they look themselves in the mirror.”

Tartuffe atDrama Theatre, Sydney Opera House untilSaturday August 23, tickets online.

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