Though people today are more likely to be familiar with Molly Ringwald than Molière, the French playwright was a pretty big deal in the 17th century.

Though people today are more likely to be familiar with Molly Ringwald than Molière, the French playwright was a pretty big deal in the 17th century.

While his name may not be instantly recognisable to those outside of the world of theatre, Molière is considered one of the masters of Western comedy and several of his characters are as coveted as Hamlet or Lady Bracknell. The eponymous Tartuffe (here played perfectly by the silver-tongued Leon Ford) is perhaps chief amongst these, a religious huckster charming his way into the blindly devout confidence of wealthy family man Orgon (Sean O’Shea, in a splendid performance worthy of a Carry On film). Despite the apprehensions of his wife, children and maid, Orgon quickly establishes Tartuffe as the authority over every aspect of his life, paving the way for a series of comic encounters and slapstick farce that has the audience onside from the moment the lights dim.

 

The play is in no hurry to reveal Tartuffe, who, like the appearance of all great monsters, benefits greatly by the anticipation. We know he is charming, so implicitly devout he is almost a saint; we know that few in Orgon’s family are taken in by such charms. When we do at last lay eyes on the villain (quite literally, the tartuffe – the name has come to be synonymous with hypocritical virtue), we are ready to be impressed and Ford does not disappoint; he is in turns odious and enthralling. Daughter Mariane (Geraldine Hakewill, hilariously dazzling) and her fiancé Valere (Tom Hobbs, dazzlingly hilarious) are exceptionally cast, though the show-stealing performance is provided by Kate Mulvany as the long-suffering, streetwise maid Dorine; she is pure comic gold, and her sarcastic asides are a thing of beauty.

 

Given the play is performed entirely in rhyming couplets (well, mostly), it does take time to tune your ear to the unusual delivery, and certain scenes stretch on a little longer than necessary. But Justin Fleming’s script is so delightfully spry that your attention is fixed in no time at all. A memorable play (with a wardrobe like something out of Danielewski’s House Of Leaves) that is likely to be Bell Shakespeare’s production of the year.

 

4/5 stars

Tartuffe is playing at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until Saturday August 23.

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