Review: Tartuffe, National Theatre

Denis O’Hare shines as Tartuffe in Blanche McIntyre’s directorial debut at the National Theatre

“We don’t have orgies here, this is Highgate”

The lure of the guru is one which has always been strong for the rich and powerful and from Rasputin to Steve Hilton, there’s always some long-haired, barefoot chancer to ready step in. This partly explains why Molière’s Tartuffe remains so popular today and also why it is so ripe for adaptation, as it done here in this new version by John Donnelly, directed by Blanche McIntyre in her National Theatre debut (and how to marvellous to see her here, I’ve been a fan since her days at the Finborough).

Relocated to a hyper-rich, modern-day Highgate – Robert Jones’ opulent design is full of the type of wonderful pieces of furniture you normally only see in shop windows on the King’s Road – Orgon’s family have become concerned at his increasing devotion to his new guru figure Tartuffe. And in Denis O’Hare’s hand, you can see why – he’s quite the charismatic chancer, he spends the pre-show roaming the auditorium giving out flowers and affirmations even though it may, at first glance, just look like someone has come in off the street.

And as he weasels his way into his new gaff, he’s also displacing Orgon’s extended family who aren’t best pleased at this turn of events, especially his daughter Mariane (a confident Kitty Archer) who finds her hand offered up in marriage. Kevin Doyle is great fun as the hapless Orgon and the ever-excellent Olivia Williams shines as his wife Elmire, determined to reassert her power back in the household and over the family’s ill-gotten fortunes, whose provenance is causing some of Orgon’s spiritual malaise.

The first half is good, if a little stately in places as all the pieces are manoeuvred into place. After the interval though, you can’t help but marvel at the skill and restraint of McIntyre’s directing. Just as soon as she’s let her company loose in all-out farce – Williams proves spectacularly game here and there’s fantastic scene-stealing work from Geoffrey Lumb’s Valère as Mariane’s original intended – Mcintyre’s reeling them back in to find the particular poetic grace of the last scene.

And in composing a final tableau that gave me goosebumps, she undermines the foundations of everything that has passed first with a sharp shock, and then a subtler one, tipping us over the edge in a timely reminder that we’re probably all f*cked no matter how many spiritual advisers or friends in high places we’ve got. 

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Tartuffe is currently booking at the National Theatre until 30th April

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