Sunday 24 May 2015

Theatre Review: Tartuffe at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

First performed in Versailles in 1664, Molière's Tartuffe was banned soon afterwards by King Louis XIV because of its display of religious hypocrisy and its confusion of virtue and vice. In today’s more secular society, it’s possibly harder to take the same offence on religious grounds, but still easy to recognise the bounder Tartuffe for the self-serving weasel that he is.
Following on from Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s triumphant production of Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, we have another period piece in the Factory Theatre reminding us of the unchanging nature of human duplicity. Kelvin Players, a long established amateur group in Bristol, have updated their first production here from Molière’s seventeenth century comedy to the 1890s, with a well-dressed set and cast sumptuously costumed in a hybrid style of Restoration fabrics and colours combined with late Victorian silhouettes.
Orgon has fallen under the spell of Tartuffe, a former vagrant he has raised from the gutter. So much so that he seems to care about him more than his own wife and children, believing in Tartuffe’s religious piety and devotion, even when there’s evidence to the contrary. Orgon’s mother, the venerable Madame Pernelle, is similarly afflicted, but the rest of his family is not. They see Tartuffe for what he is; a self-serving hypocrite with his eye on Orgon’s wife and fortune.
Kelvin Players’ production takes time to establish itself, getting off to a slow start, apart from an impressive initial set piece of the household processing to church, during which Orgon first claps eyes on Tartuffe. There’s philosophising and exposition to get through and, despite a consistent fluency in delivering lines, occasionally a lack of variety of pace leads to their rhythm and humour being lost.
When Orgon seeks to break off his daughter’s betrothal to Valère so that she should be promised to Tartuffe instead, the family know they must act. But will they be in time to rescue Mariane from a marriage made in hell and Orgon from bequeathing away his fortune? Orgon’s wife Elmire and son Damis, together with the family’s maid Dorine are certainly going to give it their best shot and this is where the company gets into its stride.
Tom Colebrook is a convincing Tartuffe and there are other strong performances amongst the cast, especially from the women; Nicky Rope as Elmire, Fiona McClure as Dorine and Christine West as a formidably Angela Lansbury-esque Madame Pernelle all excel. It’s hard to imagine a Victorian family maid being as assertive as Dorine though, or a Victorian wife as openly seductive to another man as Elmire, and here the updated setting does seem to sit uneasily with the play.
Ralf Togneri’s direction capitalises on the increased action of the second half, and with particularly engaging exchanges between Tartuffe and Elmire, it bowls along nicely to a satisfying conclusion. This is an enjoyable exploration of a classic text and much credit goes to the hard work of the Kelvin Players that enables them to be judged by the same standards as a professional company.
Reviewed on 13th May 2015. Photo: McPherson Photography.

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