Chris Eldon Lee reviews “Tartuffe” which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 16th November
Roxana Silbert’s first production since taking the helm at Birmingham Rep is very funny round the edges – but there’s a huge hole in the middle.
Chris Campbell’s new translation of Moliere’s famous French farce stretches as far a topical gags about Birmingham’s traffic crisis, HS2 and inevitable panto put downs about people from Wolverhampton. There are great comic performances from seasoned performers and newcomers alike and Liz Ascroft’s set and costumes are witty and exciting. Meanwhile, Silbert has the heroine attempt to strangle herself with an Aston Villa scarf (so that’s what they are for) and the audience is frequently drawn into the action, even to the extent of minding props thrown from the stage.
But all this byplay has to have something strong around which to revolve – and it all falls flat when Tartuffe turns up. I’m puzzled why the Rep should engage one of the nation’s best situation comedy actors and then ask him to be un-funny. Mark Williams puts in a strangely down beat and empty performance as the central character. It’s a farce and he’s not farcical. Instead, he’s a vacuum where a vortex is required. Even the trouser-dropping gag seemed stripped of its humour.
What Williams does do (and very well) is convey Tartuffe’s questionable piety, surreptitious manipulation and self-serving deceit. He’s constantly second-guessing God and twisting the Testaments to his own advantage. But, as he doesn’t overtly enjoy any of that (even the prospect of rogering his brother’s wife) the clear-cut motive for his malevolence is missing.
Instead, others drive the show forward, especially Ayesha Antoine as Dorine the maid. She’s the pocket powerhouse of the plot and production, with boundless energy and well-crafted comic timing. She’s a young, black Barbara Windsor – all bosom, bodice and boots; a joy to watch and a walking lesson in how to play farce.
I don’t think it really mattered, but the cartoon characters did seem to be drawn from different genres. Dorine’s roots lie in the ‘Carry On’ culture, Paul Hunter’s Organ owes a lot to the Marx Brothers, his daughter Marine (Dinita Gohil) could have stepped straight out of a Bollywood movie and Janice Connolly’s Mrs Pernelle is on the Hilda Baker side of a pantomime dame.
The whole show got a great response on press night and Moliere would doubtless be very pleased with the updated comedy – but the experiment with Tartuffe himself left me cold and frustrated and I’m not sure it’s what the Master had in mind.
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