The most prominent feature of this production’s adaptation is its swingin’ sixties setting. A pre-show video gives us a bit of context: a Folgers coffee ad; an extract from ‘Father Knows Best’; a few Beatles clips. The famous footage of Thich Quang Duc setting fire to himself at Saigon is in there too, as are Nixon and Martin Luther King, and crowds of Vietnam protestors. A ten minute long pre-play video is probably always a bad idea. Here, the gravitas of the pre-show video served only to make this gag-a-minute adaptation even more acutely embarrassing.
The programme would certainly have you believe that the American sixties scene evoked has great relevance; Elmire and Dormine, we learn, ‘have progressive views on the rights of women’. Granted, the show is ostensibly set in the sixties: Tartuffe is a hippy, Valere is a Beat Poet, and there are lots of flared trousers flapping around. But the production’s engagement with this troubled decade is superficial at best, cartoonish at worst. Had it been entertaining, though, this might not have been a problem.
The jokes were cringe-worthy. I didn’t laugh when Cleante, whilst trying to convince Orgon to drop Tartuffe, ate mayonnaise spoonfuls straight from the jar. Nor did I smile when Tartuffe put mayonnaise in his fruit juice. What about the time when Mrs Pernelle, during a serious discussion with Orgon, gets a blob of cream on her nose - and doesn’t realise even though all the other characters try to tell her? Needless to say, no. It wasn’t hilarious.
This was compounded by the fact that the gags also distracted us from important bits of plot. In what should be a tense scene between Tartuffe and Orgon, the five characters playing Tartuffe’s disciples (‘a band of hippies’) ruin the moment by sporadically echoing Tartuffe’s words. When Tartuffe argues that ‘a wife can sway her husband’s mind’, the disciples cry ‘sway!’ in unison. Nothing about this show is subtle.
There were glimpses of redemption. Melissa Feris does well in maintaining her dignity as Dorine the maid, which is really saying something, considering hers is the line ‘you deserve to be Tartuffe-ified’. Jack Davis as Tartuffe has nice command of the rhyme, and the cast as a whole buzzes with energy. But this isn't enough. If you like mayonnaise based jokes enough to make the trek to Church Hill Theatre, I’m not going to stop you. But if you’re interested in Moliere’s Tartuffe, don’t bother.