New spin for old lies

5th May 2006 at 01:00
A 17th-century satirical classic is having a surprising success with young audiences, says Aleks Sierz

Tartuffe By Moliere Watermill Theatre, Newbury. Tours nationwide until May 27

Moliere's 1664 play, Tartuffe, is a satirical masterpiece. The wealthy Orgon takes the apparently pious Tartuffe into his home. But while Orgon's mother takes a fancy to this saintly figure, the rest of the household immediately see him as a con man. Orgon, however, is so impressed with Tartuffe that he plans to force his daughter to marry him, thus disinheriting his son. But the plan backfires, and harmony is restored.

Director Jonathan Munby is enthusiastic about using Ranjit Bolt's translation of the play. "When I read it, I was absolutely blown away," he says. "It's in verse couplets, which keeps an essence of the original while adding a modern vernacular. It's very punchy, very immediate and very contemporary. This version is a synergy of old and new, and has a real dynamism which drives the story on."

Munby's production is set in the 17th century because he doesn't think the play can work outside its historical context. "At the end, the king is such a strong force that if you tried to update it I don't know what you could have as a substitute. The central relationships between father and daughter and husband and wife are so of their time they would be hard to transpose.

It was an era when women often had no choice but to obey the man of the house."

Munby sees Tartuffe as "having an extraordinary appetite for food and sex.

Like a parasite, he leeches off people. But he's also a compulsive liar, which is a medical disorder in which the sufferer gets a real thrill from sailing as close to the wind as possible and almost being caught out".

Orgon falls for him because "he has a hole in his life that is plugged by Tartuffe. What Orgon craves is total control of his domain, his family.

He's being driven insane by his inability to control absolutely the women in his house."

The play's main theme of religious fundamentalism and hypocrisy remains timely, but, as Munby points out, Moliere puts all the characters of under scrutiny and exposes everyone's varying degrees of hypocrisy. "The play is about seeing and understanding the truth, looking past rhetoric and spin."

Munby has been pleased by "the concentration of young audiences - we tend to underestimate their attention span. If the way you tell a story is clear enough - and our production is uncluttered - they are absolutely rapt and hooked by it. My hope is they will come away from the production with less fear of classical theatre texts."

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