The Pick - Tartuffe

September 8, 2011

Tartuffe

Roger McGough after Molière

English Touring Theatre, Liverpool Playhouse, and then touring nationally

When the theatre director Gemma Bodinetz asked poet Roger McGough to create a new version of Moliere's 1664 play Tartuffe, he was distinctly unkeen. Although he had studied French at university and even taught French in schools, he couldn't even remember the classic farce.

But since he was booked on a Saga cruise as what he calls "poet in captivity", he decided to take several English-language translations of the play with him and use the time to come up with a polite excuse. But as soon as he started, he reports, "the voice sort of flowed. I surprised myself by how fluidly it came out."

McGough introduces a few deliberate anachronisms and a running joke in which characters refer to deliberately mangled "old English sayings" such as "And hogs might take to the air", but has otherwise essentially adapted the original, speech by speech.

He has retained a social context that he sees as notable for its "combination of innocence and bubbling sexuality, where people are defined by hierarchy and the way they dress" - and where paterfamilias Orgon still lives in the fond hope that he can get his lovestruck daughter, flirtatious wife and cheeky maid to obey him if he blusters enough.

Tartuffe remains a play about a very 17th-century form of religious hypocrisy, where the much-discussed title character finally enters in the third act, telling his servant to "Rub some fresh stinging nettles into my hair shirt, will you? And you can put away the scourge...the one I use for self-flagellation. Should anyone call, I have gone to the prison to distribute among those poor unfortunates my last few coins."

Yet on this basic structure McGough has built a firework display of word play, witty repartee and unexpected rhymes. Although Orgon has fallen completely under the spell of Tartuffe, everybody else realises he is just a shyster and "a smarmy old lech", determined to marry Orgon's daughter Mariane, seduce his wife Elmire and make off with his money.

"What is it about this interloper," demands Cléante, Orgon's brother-in-law, "that goads you into faux pas after faux pas?...Those same people drawn to where the cash is/extol the virtues of sackcloth and ashes." Told that she is expected to wed Tartuffe, Mariane can only comment: "Than be 'tartouffed' by that two-faced actor/I'd rather remain virgo intacta."

McGough is confident that Molière's brilliant timing and characterisation, combined with his own bravura language, should soon distract audiences from the play's somewhat archaic premise.

First mounted to great acclaim at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse in 2008, McGough's version has been revived by the English Touring Theatre with most of the original cast. It can be seen in the same venue from 8 to 17 September and in theatres around the country until 5 November (www.ett.org.uk).

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