Secrets, lies and disguised motives drive the plot of Molière’s 1664 play, in which a trickster, Tartuffe (Ryan Donaldson), insinuates himself into a wealthy family, manipulating his host by pretending to be penniless and pious. “You’re going to be Tartuffed,” the daughter of her house is warned, before her gullible father Orgon (Frank McCusker) tries to marry her off to the resident imposter.
Director Caitríona McLaughlin’s lavish production underscores the artifice and insincerity of this decadent setting, with conversations held for the benefit of hidden listeners and doors flung open to reveal huddled listeners. With its frescoed dining room and recessed corridors, Katie Davenport’s set design creates the sense of a formal domain where privacy is impossible. Family members are swathed in peacock-colored silks, always ready to make a histrionic entrance, which helps explain Orgon’s susceptibility to Tartuffe’s feigned simplicity.
With Davenport’s costumes playfully combining styles and erratically built-in cell phones and laptops, the period in which the drama is set is deliberately out of focus, slipping between the ages. While this makes for a startling stage image and early comedy to see elaborately coiffed Baroque figures strut to Philip Stewart’s pulsating score, the jumble of periods strips the play of context and bite.
Frank McGuinness’ new take has a blunt, earthy tone, delivered in couplets that fall flat at times, despite the best efforts of the ensemble cast, especially McCusker and Aislín McGuckin, who play Orgon’s spirited wife, Elmire. As the object of Tartuffe’s unwanted attention, she has a lot to put up with between sexual double standards and self-righteousness.
Since Tartuffe’s religious zeal no longer makes an impact and is downplayed in Donaldson’s suave performance, this charlatan’s cunning and ambition could have been presented in a more contemporary guise: perhaps as an online influencer or leader of a sect. This would require a thorough updating and adaptation of the text – and of the staging – to the power dynamics of the 21st century. Instead, without being anchored in a specific society, time or place, the many potential satirical targets of this classic comedy are lost and the question: why stage it now? – remains unanswered.
• Tartuffe is at the Abbey Theater in Dublin until 8 April; then on tour until 13 May