first night

Tartuffe

Ben Salter is "Tartuffified" by CTC's annual Great Hall Show

16th - 18th March

It’s not often that I feel passionate enough about a play to offer to review it at least four weeks before it actually takes place. I see a lot of plays through Durham Student Theatre and usually I can just sit back and enjoy them without feeling the necessary urge to write about them. However, when I heard that Castle Theatre Company were going to be trying their hand at Molière’s Tartuffe, I have to admit I was excited. It’s a wonderfully physical play, and the occasionally lengthy nature of parts of the script can be addressed through clever direction and an enthusiastic attitude from cast and crew alike. And I’m glad to say that director Liz Smith’s production was worth the four-week wait. 

Unlike previous Castle Great Hall shows, Tartuffe was staged at the Minstrels’ Gallery end of the room, with a much smaller stage providing a more intimate atmosphere for the cast (and audience) to work with. The two symmetrical grand doorways loomed over a relatively simple but exquisite set: a black and white chequered floor with a raised platform, upon which a single white table stood. The wall was scattered with portraits of the family of the household, thrown messily together to represent the chaos that was to erupt in front of our eyes. The empty stage had a wonderful aesthetic quality to it, and it is plain to see that Smith clearly had a definite concept in mind. Contrasting a chaotic visual scene with the majestic Great Hall reflected the hypocritical nature of the play itself, finding corruption underneath supposed respectability. This disorder and over-the-top energy could also be seen in costume design: the enormous meringue-like skirts that the girls tottered around the stage in, and the vivid colours of the stripes in all the characters’ costumes contrasted well with the grandeur of the Great Hall itself.  

The play centres around Orgon’s (Ben Starr) household, and the grotesque caricatures that live there under the shadow of Tartuffe (Matthew Johnson), a fraud and hypocrite intent on stealing both Orgon’s fortunes and the female members of the household. However, the audience is simply made to listen to the different characters’ opinions on the elusive Tartuffe for quite some time in the first act before he is fully revealed to us. A wonderful touch by Smith was to have Johnson circling above the household on the Minstrels’ Gallery itself, the master puppeteer of the farcical dumbshow below. He appeared whenever his character was mentioned in conversation, and his omnipresence was strongly felt through Johnson’s incredible facial expressions. This is just one of the strong points of a hysterical performance - Johnson brought a superb fluid physicality to the role and combined it with perfect comic timing. It was almost hypnotic to watch him move around the stage with significant command of the space and an enthusiasm and internal energy needed for such a role. Starr excelled once again as Orgon: his jagged and staccato physicality was perfectly suited to the uptight and brash old man of the house, and his wonderfully awkward facial expressions had the audience in stitches. Francesca Donnelly, although at times a little quiet, was both controlling and seductive in the part of Elmire. Her lines were delivered exceptionally well with poise and purpose, and her realistic writhing under the charms of Tartuffe were almost too painful to watch.  

Of course, the entire cast excelled themselves in bringing this comedic flair and farcical tension to the Great Hall. Rachel Metcalfe’s boisterous Madame Pernelle was a delight to watch, commanding the stage with a brisk and pompous caricature. Rebecca Mackinnon and Michael Shaw were marvellous in their double act as Mariane and Valère. Mackinnon gracefully played the simpering and slightly dim daughter with absolute charm, and her dialogue with Valère produced some of the biggest laughs of the night. Shaw knew exactly how to get the most out of every one of his lines, and entertained the audience with every exaggerated movement and emphatic delivery of his speeches. Ned French’s Cleante could have been more physical to match the style of his fellow cast members, but he played the role with an enjoyably pompous and slightly aloof attitude, and overall showed a good grasp of the character of the droning uncle. 

My favourite characters in the production are the neurotic busybody of a maid, Dorine (played by Niamh Murphy) and the energetic and emotional Damis (played by David Head). I was particularly interested to see how these characters would be brought to life, but luckily both were handled in an exceptional way by the two actors. Murphy had an endearing habit of almost spiraling out of control in her speech and then pausing to smile and regain composure in the ensuing chaos, showing her grasp of the character and her understanding of the fluctuating nature of the role. Head had the most wonderful control over his voice and facial expressions – I particularly enjoyed watching him from his hiding place behind the picture frame as it accentuated just what a wonderfully physical actor he can be. 

Liz Smith must be commended on some superb handling of very difficult physical and visual scenes. My one problem with the script was that occasionally characters would just carry on talking and lengthy speeches could have had the potential to get dull – however, Smith brought life to these by coupling them with some incredibly energetic slapstick scenes, notably the scene where Tartuffe tries to seduce Elmire while Orgon attempts to hide himself under the table. The decision to have the characters run tirelessly back and forth between the two doors (both onstage and off) to demonstrate the absolute chaos and disorganization of the household was thoroughly enjoyable to watch – though it perhaps could have been pushed further. The introductory scene of the second half, which was entirely made up of characters running in, out, round and across the stage needed to have a little more pure excitement and energy in order to really bring out the humour of the situation. There were also a few blocking problems at the very start of the show – Murphy had to really squeeze behind Metcalfe’s enormous dress to complete the blocking, and similarly in that scene, a few characters found themselves sitting on set for no apparent reason that I could see. Nonetheless, these few early problems were quickly ironed out in the rest of the show, providing some highly entertaining and stunning physical sequences.

Tartuffe used to be a highly controversial play, but fortunately the focus is now on the comedy that can be brought out through the physicality of the actors and the sheer disorder of the family presented to the audience. I thoroughly enjoyed CTC’s Tartuffe and would like to thank Liz Smith and her production team for a highly entertaining evening. I would consider myself to be almost entirely Tartuffified.

17 March 2009

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
Our theatre that speaks for itself

DST is proud to be supported by: PwC