Tartuffe at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London – review round-up
The West End doesn’t get much weirder than this. A bilingual staging of Moliere’s 1664 comedy Tartuffe, relocated to contemporary California, translated by an Englishman, directed by a Frenchman, and performed by a cast of both nationalities. It’s at the Haymarket until July 28.
Gerald Garutti’s production uses a script reworked by seasoned adaptor Christopher Hampton (chosen translator of Florian Zeller and Yasmina Reza, among others) to tell the farcical fable of Orgon, his family, and the eponymous charlatan who tries to cheat him out of everything. Except we’re no longer in 17th-century France, we’re in present-day LA.
Garutti’s cast is led by French-Scottish screen actor Sebastian Roche, Peaky Blinders star Paul Anderson (making his West End debut), and Audrey Fleurot, a French actress starring in popular police procedural Spiral.
But can this starry international cast light up the Theatre Royal Haymarket? Does this bizarre bilingual production bring out the French fun of Moliere’s comedy? Or is it simply lost in too much translation? Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Tartuffe – Lost in translation?
A French play, performed in French and English, set in America. Does the West End’s first ever bilingual production (or so it claims) pull off what seems like quite a wacky concept?
“On paper, it might have seemed like a good idea,” writes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★). “In practice, this bilingual version of Moliere’s great comedy, played in both French and English, proves erratic and confusing.”
“Merde, what a mess,” agrees Sam Marlowe (Times, ★). “I’d like at least to be able to salute this excruciating staging of the classic Moliere comedy as a bold experiment, but it’s difficult to be that generous when its intentions are so baffling and its execution so extraordinarily self-defeating.”
Most critics concur. It’s a “laboured, baffling project” according to Patricia Nicol (Metro, ★★), and a “frankly maladroit project” that “induces tears of frustration”, according to Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★).
There is, it seems, one big conceptual flaw. “The idea of producing a classic play in a mix of two languages is pretty odd,” kicks off Jenny Gilbert (The Arts Desk, ★★). “What kind of audience is a bilingual version of Moliere’s best-known comedy aiming at, you wonder. Homesick emigres? British francophiles with rusty A-level French? Neither constituency is likely to be satisfied by this curious dish that is neither fish nor fowl.”
“Being bilingual makes it a difficult watch, practically speaking, as your brain’s forced to flick between registers,” chips in Matt Trueman (What’sOnStage, ★★). “Just as you tune into one language, the speakers switch and you’re sent scrabbling for surtitles. Chunks of text go missing in a restless encounter that never settles.”
“Unless you’re bilingual, you’ll likely spend a good half of the two-hour running time squinting at surtitles,” chimes Cavendish. “This is a show with insufficient rhyme.”
‘This is such spectacularly bad theatre that it had me praying — please, please, just make it stop’ – Sam Marlowe, The Times
“The play shifts backwards and forwards between French Alexandrine metre and English blank verse in a way that often feels disjointed,” adds Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★). “This relocation to the world of the 1% makes a sort of sense dramatically. These people may have all the money in the world but they still crave spiritual guidance. But it’s never clear what point the production is trying to make.”
“The updated setting could have made sense as American consumer capitalism clashes with a longing for spiritual renewal amid the influence of some dodgy Christian fundamentalism, but it is not successfully implemented here,” agrees Neil Dowden (Exeunt).
“Somewhere in this pretentious shambles is perhaps a vague allusion to the rise of religious and political conservatism, or our willingness to put our faith in self-interested demagogues,” says Marlowe. “Perhaps. Who cares? This is such spectacularly bad theatre that it had me praying — please, please, just make it stop.”
“Garutti’s staging never settles decisively on a particular tone,” sums up Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★). “Its depiction of LA decadence is vague, the humour is erratic, and the moments of political seriousness are clunky.”
“Instead of bursting into flame and burning away rapidly, this is a Tartuffe that flickers with promise, yet manages to take risks without achieving a blazing irreverence,” he concludes.
Tartuffe – Trump’s Tartuffe
The bilingual approach doesn’t really satisfy anyone, then. What about Garutti’s vision? How well does his depiction of contemporary California sit with Moliere’s comedy?
“Moliere’s play makes most sense when set in a working household based on observed reality,” states Billington. “Here, Andrew D Edwards’ semi-abstract set is dominated by an elevated, translucent white cube that becomes Tartuffe’s natural domain. As he threatens to cheat Orgon of his fortune, it even achieves a bulldozer-like momentum. The trouble is it suggests that Orgon lives in a modish art gallery rather than a house.”
“Edwards’ set, consisting of a glossy box fronted with privacy glass, lit in neon shades and surrounded by what appears to be an infinity pool, looks sleek, but is actually spectacularly cumbersome,” agrees Tripney. “When the actors are inside the box it distorts their voices and makes it harder to tell what’s going on.”
“We wait patiently for the symbolic significance of this box to reveal itself; we wait in vain,” writes Marlowe. “Is it suggestive of a movie screen? Of the various devices on which we despair over Donald Trump’s latest tweets or devour fake news? Is it a giant safe, where charlatans such as Tartuffe stash their ill-gotten gains? Who knows — it might as well be a massive microwave for all the sense it makes.”
“Edwards’ design is an abomination,” she rails. “A gimmicky attempt at chic that works against play and performers, destroying whatever slim chance the whole debacle had of being remotely watchable.”
‘Edwards’ set suggests that Orgon lives in a modish art gallery rather than a house’ – Michael Billington
There’s bucketloads of scorn for the play’s reworked conclusion, too. In the original, an officer of Louis XIV turns up out of the blue to sort everything out. Here, he’s replaced by a character of a distinctly different shade – a “Donald ex machina”, as Trueman puts it.
It’s a twist “with all the subtlety of a charging rhino” according to Hitchings, that’s “incredibly blunt and out of keeping with what’s gone before” according to Tripney, and that’s “too much, too late” according to Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★).
“The updating of Moliere’s satire to modern-day Tinseltown, epicentre of the modern world’s most potent belief system, was a good enough idea,” points out Gilbert. “As was turning the deus ex machina into an emissary from the White House. But the fact that this speech got the only big laugh of the night was an indictment of the whole sorry project.”
Tartuffe – Lost in Language
So Tartuffe doesn’t make any sense, looks silly, and has a embarrassing ending. The reviews aren’t great then, but is the show salvaged by some sterling performances from its French and English cast?
Not really. Anderson largely disappoints in his West End debut. His Tartuffe “doesn’t sufficiently project that dangerous glint of self-deceived certainty that we associate with the species, nor the inordinate appetite,” according to Taylor, and is “insufficiently sinister” according to Nicol.
“Anderson, with a beard and a bowl haircut, seems oddly absent and speaks in a monotonous, soporific Southern drawl,” writes Marlowe. “Even the most Scientology-addled minds in La-La land wouldn’t succumb to such meagre charisma.”
Fleurot fares a little better. She “captures Elmire’s strategic watchfulness” according to Hitchings, and is “a model of elegant intelligence” according to Taylor.
“Anderson, shaggily bearded with a crop of prison tattoos concealed under his loose linen shirt, spends a lot of time either stretching out his arms in Christ-like poses or laying his head in Orgon’s lap like a puppy while speaking in a honeyed southern drawl,” assesses Tripney. “Fleurot glides around the stage in haute couture gowns, her anger visibly building at Tartuffe’s presence in her home, but neither of them are particularly convincing.”
It’s only Roche’s Orgon, fluent in both languages, that’s widely praised. He “nicely captures the dazed, giddy preposterousness of Orgon’s almost sexual infatuation” for Taylor, is “fully convincing” for Gilbert, and “makes the strongest impression” for Hitchings.
In general, though, the performances are just another victim of a unsustainable central idea – squeezing French and English traditions into one show. “Tartuffe suggests the two theatrical cultures don’t mix,” asserts Trueman. “Garutti’s English actors aren’t comfortable with the physicality, his French cast (Roche excepted) mangle the words.”
Tartuffe – Is it any good?
Nope, it’s really not. Two-star reviews across the board, with a noticeably vitriolic one-star from Sam Marlowe in the Times, mean that the West End’s first French-English bilingual production looks likely to be its last for a while.
There’s a lot wrong here – the set, the performances, the ending – but the reviews all point towards one conclusion. This just wasn’t a great idea.