Tartuffe at the Northcott

I had the great pleasure last week of seeing Moliere’s Tartuffe in a production by the English Touring Theatre company at Exeter Uni’s Northcott Theatre. The production was staged using a 2008 adaptation by Roger McGough (Liverpool’s Poet Laureate, it would seem!) that took full advantage of opportunities to modernize the text while still keeping to Moliere’s rhymed verse. The balance of old and new was expertly handled, in my opinion, by both McGough and director Gemma Bodinetz. While the design was very period-appropriate, much of the behaviour and language was altered to reflect the world since Moliere.

Unfortunately, despite four years in Canada, my knowledge of French falls in the “little to none” range, and therefore I cannot comment upon Moliere’s original text in relation to McGough’s adaptation/translation. What I can say, however, is that McGough managed to do what few translations of anything from any language do: make the text sound like something real English-speaking people would say. Anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of watching or acting in a poorly translated version of Chekov or Ibsen will know what I mean. (In fact, I would argue that poor translations are largely to blame for what I view as an unjust, widespread hatred of Chekov and Ibsen, but that’s for another post.) McGough almost certainly took some artistic liberties with Moliere’s text, but, after all, isn’t it in the nature of a good translation to also be an adaptation? We certainly have little eccentricities in English that make no sense at all to non-native speakers, and I can’t imagine that the French are any different in that respect. So a good translator must, of force, adapt the text to suit his audience while still honoring the spirit of the original. No easy feat, but I believe McGough has done it.

Consider this intriguing little exchange between Orgon and his rather over-dramatic son Damis:

ORGON: You wretch!

DAMIS: I will, in a minute!

Teehee. It’s the sort of wordplay that great comedic writers engage in all the time, but that a direct translation probably wouldn’t bring out. In this case, it’s also the perfect “mood lightener” in a scene that could turn very dark indeed: Prior to Orgon’s entrance, Damis hid in the closet and listened to Tartuffe attempting to seduce Orgon’s second wife, Elmire. Damis attempts to spill the beans, but the besotted Orgon will hear nothing said against his beloved Tartuffe. The scene ends with Orgon banishing and disinheriting Damis, his only son. Such a plot could have been totally tragic if it wasn’t so funny, and it’s McGough’s language games that help it along.

Of course, I can’t give all the credit to the playwright/translator/adaptor. We all know that even a beautiful text can be ruined by lackluster actors (ever seen a high school production of Romeo and Juliet?). Fortunately, the cast of Tartuffe sparkled. Excellent timing, physical comedy, and surprising choices all came together across the cast to bring McGough’s translation to life. Hiran Abeysekera as the young lover Valere, for example, only has two or three scenes, but they are among the most memorable of the play. This was true of many of the ‘smaller parts.’ I found that Simon Coates as Cleante and Alan Stocks as Loyal and the Officer were among my favourite actors in the entire play (which is not to suggest that the leads were lacking in any way). To be fair, the courtship between Orgon’s daugher Mariane (Emily Pithon) and Valere verges on farce, often a bit too much so, but both actors played their extremes with such conviction that I almost didn’t mind. The balletic aesthetic of the two lovers was, to my mind, an effective and hilarious choice, particularly since Valere’s shapely calves and flying leaps through the air balanced against Mariane’s clumsy, pre-K-ballet arms to great comedic effect.

The cast’s text work was very well done across the board. At no time did I feel like I was listening to a children’s nursery rhyme, which is such a trap with a rhymed, poetic text. They made he lines feel natural while still respecting the poetry, and often made use of the rhymes for comedic effect. I did feel, however, that Joseph Alessi’s Orgon was just a tad too shouty; he seemed to live in a perpetual state of over-the-top high stakes. To be fair, high stakes are almost always a good thing in acting, and I felt that the rest of the cast managed their stakes very well. Comedy, after all, can be described as real life with higher stakes. Alessi, however, allowed high stakes to affect the volume of his voice, and he came off a bit like Will Farrell in that old SNL sketch…you know, the one where can’t control the VOLUME OF HIS VOICE! Additionally, the constant shouting from Alessi sometimes affected his enunciation just a tad, which, coupled with a fast-paced, poetry-based script, made him quite difficult to understand at times. This was his one weakness, however, as I did feel that other aspects of his performance, particularly his physical work, were very good.

The work of thc cast, playwright/translator/adaptor, and director all came together to produce a hilarious production whose flaws fade away somewhat i the light of its successes. Overall, it was a very enjoyable night of theatre that had me laughing all the way home.

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