Thursday 7 March 2019

Tartuffe at the National, or, Insufficiently Fleet of Foot

Note: A review of the performance on Thursday 28th February 2019.

In the opening stages of this show I rather hoped for a fully comedic evening - in the present state of the world our theatres could, quite frankly, do with a bit more sheer escapism. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear that this comedy is married to yet another Norris era attempt to lecture us about that world beyond the theatre walls. That attempt suffers from a heavy handedness which infects the more comedic elements depriving them of the lightness, the ease of the best comedy. The result is another evening at the National which drags.

The show is blessed with an enjoyably opulent set (Robert Jones), even if the double doors at the back don't slam with quite the force or ease that the farcical element of the script really needs. Director Blanche McIntyre also successfully shrinks the large Lyttelton stage, although she has been less careful regarding sightlines for those on the front left hand aisle paying full price. With the help of physical comedy director Toby Park she engineers some brilliant surprise entrances. But pacing is often slow, the farcical elements never get quite wild or quick enough, there's an insufficient sense of affairs spinning out of control, and the tilting floor at the end is gratuitous rather than menacing.

John Donnelly's adaptation suffers from a number of problems. He's relocated the action to London, but somehow that never really felt concrete to me. The political context is problematically vague - playwrights generally have a problem with this at the moment because current politics is more fantastical than anybody seems willing to put on stage - which rather suggests that they should stop trying until it isn't. He's also not helped by the latest instance of National accent soup in the casting which muddies the attempt to create a distinct sense of place. Donnelly is also clearly very anxious that we should register his political points which thus, as too often, come across as lectures instead of emerging organically from the story and characters. There isn't anything new in the points he seeks to make, nor much in the way of solutions. The main aim seems to be to try to render a presumably largely middle class audience guilty about its privilege, but I'm afraid the main effect on at least this middle class member of the audience was to cause my attention to drift. Particularly in the second half I just ceased to care enough about any of the protagonists to be much bothered as to what their fate might be.

This is a show that cries out for a really compelling performance in the lead role - not least because Tartuffe gets such a huge build up from everybody else before he finally appears on stage. Denis O'Hare is sometimes very funny but after a while the silly accent and the Jack Sparrow like gestures started to pall and I began to wonder why anybody else on stage felt compelled by him, which was rather a problem. Olivia Williams's Elmire, for some reason made American here, suffers by comparison to Janie Dee's magisterial performance of a similar type (Phyllis in Follies) currently upstairs in the Olivier, and Williams's accent is not always solid. Kevin Doyle doesn't quite find the needed range for Orgon who should veer from an almost insane exercise of authority to near complete breakdown. Among the supporting cast the strongest performance is Geoffrey Lumb's Valere. He comes closest to convincing as a contemporary type - I could well imagine Mr Corbyn falling in love with his awful poetry - though that poetry doesn't manage to be quite as uproariously funny as the bandit chief's in Shaw's Man and Superman - recently seen on this stage. But again the performance ultimately needed to feel easier.

Overall, this is another unsatisfactory evening of the Norris era. The cast isn't quite at the highest level. The show can't decide whether it wants to make us laugh or lecture us, and doesn't fully succeed at either. I've suggested before that the National should give the state of the nation theme a rest. Sadly, I fear it isn't going to.


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