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Tartuffe review at National Theatre, London – ‘Denis O’Hare on fine form’

Denis O'Hare and Olivia Williams in Tartuffe at the National Theatre, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan

There’s been a mini-wave of Molière updates on our stages over the last few months. Last year, there was a bilingual staging of Tartuffe in the West End and Anil Gupta relocated the playwright’s scathing attack on hypocrisy and performative piety to modern-day Birmingham for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now, John Donnelly has ostensibly transplanted the play to Highgate.

Robert Jones’ gorgeous set, with its teal walks, huge windows and starburst chandelier, lusciously lit by Oliver Fenwick, feels more Paris than north London. But bar the odd joke about Archway, there’s a weird lack of specificity to the production – it could be set anywhere that the obscenely moneyed reside, which is presumably the point.

Orgon (Kevin Doyle) is a former military man who has acquired his considerable wealth through morally dubious means. He’s recently become enthralled by Tartuffe (Denis O’Hare), a vagrant-turned-guru, who somehow contrives to dazzle Orgon with what he perceives as spiritual purity while also hoovering up the contents of his wine cellar. So enamoured with Tartuffe is Orgon that he decides to force his daughter Mariane (Kitty Archer) to marry him.

As a veteran of the delightfully schlocky American Horror Story series, O’Hare is no stranger to grotesques and he’s in good form here. His Tartuffe sports prayer beads and wears his lank hair in a man-bun. He says “namaste” a lot and doesn’t look like he washes all that often; he has an accent that roams all around central and eastern Europe, and is pretty cartoonish, but is, crucially, no more extreme a character than Orgon and his family. He’s also an outsider, and a foreigner, something that becomes increasingly significant.

Donnelly’s smart adaptation is faithful to the original. It is not written in verse, for the most part at least – as Mariane’s beau Valere, the socialist poet, proclaims: “Rhyming is a bourgeois construct.” Otherwise, it adheres pretty closely to the plot. This means, though, that it takes an absolute age before Tartuffe is introduced and his impact on the family becomes apparent. There’s an awful lot of build-up and less in the way of pay-off.

Things feel tighter in the second half. The seduction scene between Tartuffe and Olivia Williams, as Orgon’s American second wife Elmire, is slickly handled and tightly choreographed, though the biggest laughs come care of the secondary characters – Geoffrey Lumb, as Valere, is a delight. He steals every scene he’s in.

The production reunites Donnelly with director Blanche McIntyre, following their superb reworking of The Seagull for Headlong in 2013. McIntyre, making her National Theatre debut, draws strong performances from her cast, but the satire feels muddy and the final swerve in tone is too abrupt. The climactic image of a society about to fracture and collapse is a potent one, though – the bottom about to drop out of the world.

True Blood actor Denis O’Hare: ‘Being a theatre geek is not really nerdy – it’s still got sex appeal’

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John Donnelly's Molière update features strong comic performances but lacks satirical bite