Tartuffe is “the patron saint of swindlers” – a charming rogue who takes centre stage in Molière’s farcical satire, charming his way into possession of a gullible aristocrat’s daughter, wife, and entire estate. Despite the opulent de rigueur eighteenth-century attire and self-consciously versified speech, Molière’s Tartuffe is a timeless treatment of hypocrisy, gullibility, and the familiar trope of the cuckolded husband. This production is no exception – it manages to retain the acerbic satire behind the play’s farcical plot line, whilst still being hilarious.
You don’t need to be familiar with the play for the story to provoke a touch of déjà vu. The preposterous farcical caricatures are all there: from the castigating grandmother Madame Pernelle, who frames the story with her appearance at the beginning and end, to her gullible son Orgon who inadvertently facilitates the seduction of his wife by the seemingly saintly Tartuffe. In true Carnavalesque style, the wily, forthright servant Dorine plays a particularly prominent part as commentator and (often unwelcome) councillor.
The actors speak in verse, but touches of modern expression brings the audience closer to the comedy, like when Tartuffe is incongruously called a “noodle,” and “sovereign” awkwardly rhymes with “botherin’”. The ubiquity of the double entendre highlights both the farcical and parodic layers in the play: when the outwardly pious Tartuffe places his hand immodestly on Orgon’s wife Elmire’s dress, for instance, she responds with “I can see you are a man of the cloth,” a brilliant expression of the play’s bawdy humour and lampooning of priestly duplicity.
Bawdy punning and bon mot, direct appeals to the audience, and lashings of dramatic irony – the play’s action is far from subtle. As to be expected, there is much deception leading to amorous misunderstandings, and a good deal of hiding in chests and behind curtains. However, the minimalistic stage set works well in this production to counterbalance the hyperbolic characterisation: the speech and mannerisms of the characters are opulently embellished, so the stage design doesn’t need to be. Similarly, the lighting is mostly subtle, apart from the increasingly red light surrounding Tartuffe and Elmire as he expresses his lustful desires towards her.
The cast has its fair share of newcomers to the Oxford theatre scene but the performances are polished and assured. Tommy Siman is effortless as Tartuffe, as are Alma Prelec as Elmire and Bria Thomas as the meddling servant Dorine. This feels like proper theatre – the confidence of the cast, the satirical bite mixed with punning humour, the spaciousness of Corpus’s auditorium. There’s even an interval. No better way to spend a blustery February evening, n’est-ce pas?