‘Tartuffe – the hypocrite’

‘Tartuffe – the hypocrite’ is a classic, caustic satire and farce. It was written in 1664 by French playwright Molière, and the name ‘Tartuffe’ means ‘hypocrite’ or ‘deceiver’. The play is written in alexandrines – a rhyming couplet of twelve-syllable lines – 1,962 of them. Unlike Shakespeare’s much shorter couplets, more than one person often shares the same couplet.

The play premiered at the Versailles Palace fête, but because of the Tartuffe’s attitude to religion, the archbishop of Paris, Hardouin, threatened excommunication for anyone who watched, performed in or even read the play. Molière therefore asked his friend King Louis XIV for support. The play was rewritten and called ‘Panulphe’ – a Sudanese word – but it was again banned, however the King allowed private performances for the French aristocracy.

This delightful, bawdy and uproarious adaptation of the original satire is by Australian librettist and playwright, Justin Fleming. Justin, who has been vice-president of the Australian Writers’ Guild and a board member of the Australian National Playwrights’ Centre, has produced a magnificently crafted script; still in the original couplet style, the completely new dialogue is contemporary, and with many fun up-to-the-minute references.

Before the play, I met several Fleming fans, who had been especially drawn to this production because of his immense sense of humour and writing skills. Justin was also present at the opening night performance.

This play was Kate Cherry’s Perth swansong. In the past 7 years with Black Swan, she has directed or co-directed, more than two dozen memorable productions, but this had to be the ultimate. When a play has the whole house standing in admiration and ovation of a play, then this shows that every aspect has succeeded. We wish Kate well for the future.

This show is a joint production between two old friends, the Black Swan State Theatre Company and the Queensland Theatre Company. The fast moving, enthralling, two and a half hour performances start at 7.30 each evening in the Heath Ledger Theatre, within the State Theatre Centre, 174 William Street in Northbridge. The season runs until Sunday 6th November.

The scene is Orgon’s chic house in present day Australia – 400 years after the Paris home in Molière’s book. Richard Roberts’ sumptuous sets and haute couture costume design (costumière, Jenny Edwards) has retained the air of Parisian affluence. The clever hair and makeup consultant is Raquel Alessi, who has added a little humour to her skills.

The design has two sets built onto the largest revolve that one could envisage. It is actually wider than the stage, overlapping into the wings! The opening scene is the exterior of a modern, white concrete building with a sandstone block, character wall and aluminium framed windows. There is an exterior, upstairs balcony and a suntrap patio.

When the stage rotates, it reveals an amazing interior, reminiscent of Rose’s old Peppermint Grove palace! A curved staircase led down from the long internal balcony, to the white marble floor below. A white grand piano stood in the corner, a raised dining area was overlooked by a huge, upbeat, orange oil painting (Marek Szyler). Centre stage were two armchairs and a bright orange, studded settee.

Lighting designer, David Murray employed a line of footlights to cast a nocturnal glow to the house exterior. Inside he used domestic downlights, enhanced with LEDs. The later gave subtle colour changes according to the mood of the play; clever designing.

The stage management was smoothly carried out by Peter Sutherland and his assistant, Georgia Landré-Ord.

       We enter the house to find wild revelries taking place. The adamant head of the household, the extremely wealthy Orgon (Steve Turner) is out seeing a friend, and so his family are making the most of his absence. His whimsical, attractive daughter, Mariane (Tessa Lind) and her handsome fiancé, Valère (James Sweeny) are kissing on the couch. Mariane’s uncontrollable stepbrother, Damis (Alex Williams) is, as usual, living life to excess as he empties a champagne bottle.

   The interfering, streetwise maid, Dorine (Emily Weir) with her multipurpose, fluffy dusting wand, pretends to clean, whilst listening intently to all of the household gossip. Suddenly, she spots the smartly dressed, austere yet gullible grandmother, Madame Pernelle (Jenny Davis), returning home, closely followed by Orgon. Panic ensues.

     Orgon announces that his new spiritual leader is an aging, devout minister, Tartuffe (Darren Gilshenan). Like most Maharishi, he is celibate – unless God provides this unprincipled and duplicitous man with beautiful women.

     Orgon’s loving wife, Elmire (Alison Van Reeken) warns her mother-in-law, Madame Pernelle of the dangers of her husband’s new friend Tartuffe. Even when Tartuffe cons Orgon into making generous donations to his ‘cause’, Orgon still decides that his daughter would be better off with Tartuffe as a husband, so postpones Mariane’s wedding; Mariane has several novel ways of dealing with the stress of the situation.

     When Orgon gets a little too generous, a cunning plan is called for by the family.

   Why does the ABC reporter (Hugh Parker) call at the house?


The play was racy, ranging from the girlish, crush-like love of Mariane, to the normally demur Elmire who turns on all her sex glands in an attempt to seduce Tartuffe into her trap. Tartuffe himself was perfectly depicted as an unctuous letch, with every subtle, facial expression displaying his true inner thoughts.

Every actor had a rich, well-observed character that they depicted with aplomb. The chemistry and inter-connection of all of the actors, many of whom are major award winners, was amazing. Without meaning to be cruel, Jenny Davis has been around for decades, being probably one of WA’s most admired actors, and in this play she proves that not only has she still ‘got it’, but she is still improving; great to see you Jenny.

Emily Weir as the maid played the part with every cell of her body, uproarious performance. Alison van Reeken as the demure wife, gave a brave and side splitting piece of acting as she was mercilessly hunted, whilst her husband, Steve Turner – always great value – retained his cool obstinacy.

Director Kate Cherry handled the delivery of the tricky couplets perfectly; they could easily have become dry in style and slowed the pace. Instead the show rocked from beginning to end.

Sound Designer/Composer, Tony Brumpton, hit the mark perfectly by giving just the right amount of subtle background melody.

The crafting of this play was exemplary, from script through the technical production to the hilarious performances. One of the funniest bawdy plays ever.