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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp London Review
by Lizzie Loveridge
Set in the times of Le Roi Soleil, Louis Quatorze, Tartuffe is the tale of a man who ingratiates himself into a rich family by appearing saintly. Orgon (David Threlfall) is on the point of marrying off his daughter Mariane (Melanie Clarke Pullen) to this sanctimonious fake and giving away his house and fortune when Tartuffe (Martin Clunes) is exposed in attempting to seduce Orgon's own wife, Elmire (Clare Holman). Too late! Orgon finds he has signed away his fortune. The solution calls for a royal intervention.
The National's production of Tartuffe rattles along as a fun loving vehicle, a kind of up market pantomime, lavishly set and costumed, well over the top as Orgon's foolish nature is exposed. The director, Lindsay Posner is rather static in his direction and too respectful of the verse as his characters too often wait politely for each to finish, even though Bolt has given the ending of couplets to a different character. The costumes are gorgeous as only seventeenth century courtiers in wigs and frills and high heels can be, and that's just the men! In one bedroom scene, a character takes a wrong door to reveal floor to ceiling shelves of pretty satin shoes in sugared almond colours. The set too is an overblown star, an enormous ceiling and outer walls mural, with paintings of chubby cherubs, and seventeenth century grandees with a pieta in the centre of the ceiling. Bon mots, such as "Hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue", are ready waiting in neon tubing on the back walls for their lit moment. The finale, the illuminated descent of the French King is "de trop" and blinding as only the Sun King can be.
Clunes' arrival is built up as we hear about Tartuffe for two whole acts before he enters with the line "My hair shirt needs wringing out". He looks almost unsavoury, barefoot, well fed with a pot belly under his priest like robe, greasy long fair hair through which the famous red Clunes' ears protrude and a little goatee of a beard. The thing about Martin Clunes is that he seems to be enjoying the play as much as we are. In one scene he eats a meal with sensual greed, we are in stitches. His attempted seduction of Elmire is both cringe making and blisteringly funny. Dorine (Debra Gillett) gives an outstanding performance as the feisty maid. Her scenes with Tartuffe are some of the best. He says her decolletage offends him,
Your bosom's well nigh bare
It wounds the soul, it's Satan's snare,
Engendering sinful thoughts, so, please,
Cover your improprieties!
Dorine lets him know she finds him repulsive both in deed and body. She too gives sensible advice to the family on Mariane's proposed marriage to Tartuffe, "Some husbands are a natural bar to constancy". David Threlfall is Clunes' straightman and patsy but Clare Holman, like a young Judy Dench, shows her comic range. One could not ask for better performances from the ensemble cast, Julian Wadham's reliable Cléante whose extravagant dress sense belies his common sense, Sam Troughton's puppy like Valère, the earnest suitor for the daughter's hand and Tim Goddman-Hill's understandably aggrieved, ousted heir Damis.
The National's Tartuffe will amuse all except maybe serious French scholars and the pathologically depressed. If I could compose a musical, I'd beg Ranjit Bolt to write the lyrics.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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