Mystery, lies, and veiled motives drive the action in Molière’s 1664 comedy, in which a con man, Tartuffe (Ryan Donaldson), sneaks into a wealthy household and manipulates his host by pretending to be penniless and pious. “You are going to be Tartuffed,” the daughter of the house is warned before her gullible father, Orgon (Frank McCusker), tries to marry her off to the impostor who lives in the house.
Director Caitríona McLaughlin’s lavish staging emphasizes the artificiality and insincerity of this decadent milieu, with conversations waging for the benefit of hidden listeners and doors opening to reveal huddled eavesdroppers. With its frescoed dining room and receding corridors, Katie Davenport’s set design creates a sense of a formal domain where privacy is impossible. Family members are draped in peacock-colored silks, always ready for a theatrical performance, which helps explain Orgon’s vulnerability to Tartuffe’s false simplicity.
With Davenport’s costumes playfully combining styles, and cell phones and laptops irregularly integrated, the time drama takes place is intentionally blurred, sliding back and forth between centuries. While this creates impressive set design and initial comedy as elaborately coiffed baroque characters strut to Philip Stewart’s throbbing soundtrack, the mashup of periods robs the game of context and bite.
Frank McGuinness’s new version has a blunt, earthy tone, rendered in couplets that sometimes go flat, despite the best efforts of the ensemble cast, particularly McCusker and Aislín McGuckin, who play Orgon’s spirited wife Elmire. As the object of Tartuffe’s unwanted attention, she suffers the most amidst sexual double standards and hypocrisy.
With Tartuffe’s religious zeal no longer having an effect and being downplayed in Donaldson’s polite demeanor, this charlatan’s cunning and ambition could have been presented in a more contemporary guise: perhaps as an online influencer or cult leader. That would require a complete update and adaptation of the text – and 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 play are lost and the question – why stage this now? – remains unanswered.
• Tartuffe can be seen at the Abbey Theater in Dublin until April 8; then on tour until May 13th