“I am a native of Wolverhampton”
Molière in the modern day via the Midlands? Tartuffe is Roxana Silbert’s first production as Artistic Director of Birmingham Rep and sees her bring a distinctly local flavour to this classic French comedy. Chris Campbell’s new version dispenses with the rhyming couplets and crowbars in a ton of local references and fourth wall breaking to create a highly comic atmosphere, but one which sacrifices any sense of subtlety or depth of character for the quickfire laughs which feel more reminiscent of a panto than anything else.
My main reason for booking, aside from a trip to see the new theatre, was to see Siân Brooke, too long absent from our stages, but the main draw in the case is Mark Williams as Tartuffe, the religious hypocrite who inveigles his way into the household of self-made man Orgon, with designs on both his wife and his daughter. Not everyone falls under his spell though and the situation quickly turns farcical as they try to expose Tartuffe for what he really is, with Aston Villa scarves, jokes about HS2 and funny walks aplenty.
Criticising this production for its lack of depth seems somewhat beside the point. It is happy enough as it is, inspired by Molière rather than a true adaptation, it lacks the true bite to be called satire and a new ending skews what we assume will be the resolution. Instead there’s a cartoonish world with cartoonish silliness – where else would you find Martine McCutcheon songs in this day and age – that does its job more than competently and more importantly, goes down a storm with its audience.
Williams goes for a surprisingly restrained performance as Tartuffe, a sandal-wearing almost-hippyish take on the character, leaving Paul Hunter to revel in the broad, crowd-pleasing comic stylings of Orgon. Brooke is fine in the rather thankless role of his wife but I was more impressed with Ayesha Antoine as a perceptive servant and Janice Connelly as Orgon’s mother. Scholars of Molière will most likely bridle at the liberties taken here but it marks a commercially astute beginning for Silbert.