A large house looms over the stalls of the Heath Ledger Theatre. It could well be a facade lifted from a well-to-do street in Cottesloe or Mosman Park; today, it is the setting for Black Swan State Theatre Company’s performance of Molière’s Tartuffe: The Hypocrite. Written by playwright Justin Fleming, the play is an adaptation of Molière’s 17th century comedy that brings the story into the new millennium, with an Australian twist.
The tale centres on Orgon (played superbly by Steve Turner) and the breakdown of his family; a disintegration triggered by his refusal to accept claims that Tartuffe (Darren Gilshenan), for whom he has blinding adoration, is an impious conman.
Fleming preserves the original story’s attack on the corruption of organised religion, drawing attention to the potential for those with influence to manipulate the weak. Although the play’s social and political significance certainly doesn’t carry as much weight as it did when Molière released it in Baroque France, it still draws attention to the trappings of wealth and our tendency to put our heroes on pedestals.
Although this content might seem heavy, Fleming’s dialogue is clever, punchy, and supported by the carefully weighted delivery of the performers. His work maintains the comedic power of the original piece while furnishing it with Australian idioms and turns-of-phrase. You’d struggle to find another play that so eloquently rhymes ‘give me the shits’ with ‘greatest hits’.
Richard Roberts’ set captures the extravagant atmosphere of wealthy, suburban Australia. The two-storey house, with both an interior and exterior setting (whose orientation could change courtesy of the rotating stage), brought a layer of realism to the performance. It allowed the characters to flow seamlessly in and out of scenes. This was further enhanced by a most impressive attention to detail. The opening party scene had everything you would expect from a western suburbs house party, replete with techno music, crushed UDL cans, and half-drunk bottles of James Squire’s Orchard Crush.
Director Kate Cherry built further upon Robert’s distinctly Australian set. Her tongue-in-cheek portrayal of an affluent but dysfunctional Australian family is complete with every stereotype imaginable – a tight-lipped grandmother (played by Jenny Davis), air-headed children (Tessa Lind and Alex Williams), a sassy maid (Emily Weir), and a saucy step-mother (Alison van Reeken). So convincing is their performance that at times it felt as if I were a fly on the wall, bearing witness to an awkward family dispute (which somehow kept rhyming).
Tartuffe was the first work I’d seen where every performer was a standout. Although Fleming’s writing is fun and Roberts’ set impressive, it’s the cast that makes this show worth seeing.
Words by Nic Monisse
Molière’s Tartuffe runs at the State Theatre Centre’s Heath Ledger Theatre from 22 October until 6 November 2016. Tickets available here.