Inventive reinvention of a classic

Craig Morris (left) as the scheming Tartuffe and Neil McCarthy as the gullible orgon in Tartuffe, a reinvented work by French satirist Molière

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STAGE: Tartuffe – Courtyard Theatre, Durban University of Technology (DUT)
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
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IF YOU are a discerning fan of theatre in Durban try to make a point of catching one of the two final public performances of Molière’s classic Tartuffe, a delightful comedy, beautifully staged, that offers sharp observations on gullibility, deception and hypocrisy.

Written in 1664 and translated into English by Richard Wilbur, this production by the Fortune Cookie Theatre Company is in Durban for limited performances at DUT’s Courtyard Theatre as part of a national tour.

The production, which has a 16 age restriction, visited Soweto and Cape Town in April. After Durban, it will be staged at the Joburg Theatre, Gauteng, from May 31 to June 25. The tour also includes performances at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, at the Victoria Theatre on June 29 and 30, and July 1.

Tartuffe is on DUT’s Berea campus for school performances for public performances at 7pm tonight (Thursday) and the same time on Friday.

I encourage you to see it – not only for the fine performances and the clever rhyming verse, but because it is the work of one of South Africa’s most talented directors. She is the always inventive, ever-impressive Sylvaine Strike, who has not brought a work to Durban before.

Her Tartuffe, which follows her recent reinterpretation of another Molière classic, The Miser, the winner of four Naledi Awards, is a delightful, biting satire on the dangers of succumbing to smooth talk and being seduced by positions of authority. It spoons out much food for thought.

Controversial when it was first performed, the play was closed down, censored and Molière questioned by the religious authorities of the time, who saw in it an audacious critique of hypocrisy within the church.

In programme notes, director Strike says she sought actors who would meet the challenges of the physicality she envisioned for her reinterpretation of the old story that still has much to say about the modern world.

“The language of Molière had to live in the bodies and not just the mouths of the actors. By the same token, I chose a version of the play that most closely resembled Moliere’s original text, written in Alexandrine verse (so popular in his time),” she writes.

Craig Morris and Vanessa Cooke in a comical moment from Tartuffe.

The great challenge, she adds, was to deliver rhyme with ease, while subtly underplaying obvious rhythms that can entrap characters.

To this end Strike and her vibrant cast have done a sterling job as the direction and performances – with emphasis on exaggerated mannerisms and stances, much heightened theatricality – is a breath of fresh air.

All in the nine-member cast deliver, but an obvious standout is former Top Billing presenter Neil McCarthy as Orgon, a bigoted patriarch in a pickle after he falls under the spell of the title character.

Tartuffe is also a standout, played with gusto and flair by Craig Morris – who first appears on stage, in drag and with a high voice, as Orgon’s mother, Madame Pernelle.

Tartuffe is a wily opportunist who affects sanctity and plots to brainwash Orgon to the point that he is prepared to ostracise his son, offer his daughter’s hand in marriage to Tartuffe, and beg to differ when it is pointed out to him by family that Tartuffe has sinister intentions.

“Is not a face quite different from a mask?” it is said.

The production, which ends on a striking, chilling note, against the recurring sound of a scratched record, is also marked by a standout performance from Vanessa Cooke, as animated and comical gardener Dorine.

Others among the strong ensemble cast are Khutjo Green (Elmire), Camilla Waldman (Cleante), Adrian Alper (Damis), Vuyelwa Maluleke (Mariane), Anele Situlweni (Valère) and William Harding (truly wonderful in his cameo as  quirky Monsieur Loyal, a character that reminded me of characters from one of my favourite animated films, the French success, The Triplets of Belville).

Anele Situlweni and Vuyelwa Maluleke in Tartuffe.

Playing out on a simple but effective set depicting a circular courtyard edged in peach curtaining, flowers and shrubs, Tartuffe features music composed by Dean Barrett, and choreography by Owen Lonzar. Set design is by Sasha Ehlers and Chen Nakar, costume design by Sasha Ehlers, and lighting design by Oliver Hauser.

Tickets cost R80 each (R60 for students and pensioners) and are on sale at Computicket or from Alliance Française de Durban (phone 031 312 9582).

The KwaZulu-Natal leg of the tour has been hosted and facilitated by the Alliance Française de Durban. It was supported by the KwaZulu-Natal Arts and Culture Trust, and Tsogo Sun Garden Court Marine Parade.


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