By Sophia Atkinson
Hot on the heels of their hugely successful production of The Graduate, award-winning Hild Bede Theatre’s (HBT) second Michaelmas play is Moliere’s Tartuffe. Often hailed as 17th century France’s answer to Shakespeare, Moliere, and his play Tartuffe, widely considered to be his best farcical comedy, is an ambitious undertaking in anyone’s books. It’s a bold and exciting choice for HBT’s 2016 freshers’ play.
The action unravels the deception and patent lies of the superficially pious Tartuffe, who fools his host, Orgon, whilst trying to seduce his wife, Elmire. Decidedly a pretty saucy, controversial number back in its day, Tartuffe was banned three times after the Catholic church and devots (Catholic nobility) branded it a veiled attack on Catholicism. However, as HBT’s Izaac Theaker, who plays Cleante contends, the play is not simple church bashing- ‘it’s not an attack on religion, it’s an attack on hypocrisy.’ This perhaps explains why Tartuffe is still so ripe for reinterpretation. Gerard Depardieu’s 1984 film adaptation and American Theatre Company’s production just this year, portraying Orgon as a naive businessmen and Tartuffe as a cunning, modern-day politico, are but a few of the many modern takes on Moliere’s 400-year-old story. I was eager to hear how HBT were going to tackle the controversy, the French translation, and the time constraints with the group’s usual flair and imagination.
After a couple of scenic detours, I eventually tracked down the cast and crew for a chat about the play in between rehearsals. Unlike other freshers’ offerings, HBT’s Tartuffe has had only a week and a half for the whole process, from start to finish. Understandably, Director Tania Chakraborti says ‘It’s been challenging and extremely intense.’ Looking around the smiling, fresh-faced lot of next generation DST members, you wouldn’t think it. Asked how they would summarise the play, Kesia Schofield, who plays Dorine, the sarky maidservant, spoke for the cast when saying ‘It’s a hoot and a half.’ Chakraborti agrees- ‘There’s romance, there’s treachery, there’s deceit, there’s comedy all rolled into one, which is what makes it so great.’
It certainly helps that the roles are so relatable and enjoyable to play. Schofield, says she sees ‘a lot of myself’ in the character of Dorine, whose witticisms and sarcastic retorts are hugely entertaining. As compared with other comedies of manners, Dorine’s streetwise ways, sassy comebacks and management of those socially superior to herself (Orgon) are unusual and surprisingly modern. But Schofield is not the only cast member to feel her character was perfectly suited to her. In what Chakraborti describes as ‘the most accurate type casting I’ve ever seen’, Calum Connelly plays Damis, Orgon’s son, who struggles with anger management, constantly attempts to ‘have it out’ with Tartuffe, and maintains that ‘every action makes [him] seeth and tremble with…anger’. Connelly himself concedes ‘it’s a dream role…He’s just a really, really angry character and I don’t know what it is, I love shouting at people.’ The play also features shy lovers standing in counterpoint to Tartuffe, played by Callum Bowler, who, probably referencing the scene in which he fondles Elmire’s clothing, says with relish, ‘I’m so relentlessly creepy’, something which the rest of the cast insist ‘comes naturally’.
Tartuffe also focuses on family, and all the misunderstandings and complexities of those dynamics revealed by the appearance of a stranger. This is something the crew were keen to convey, and is partially the reason Chakraborti and Assistant Director, Tara Garman, decided to stage the play in a much more intimate space. As Chakraborti says, the 60-person hall and use of ‘side stage and ground floor…allows the audience to be…part of the family as they’re watching’. HBT’s Tartuffe looks set to be well worth a ticket. The energetic cast showcasing Moliere’s hilarious romp through French aristocratic life are proof it’s still absolutely as fresh, funny, and feisty as it’s always been.
‘Tartuffe’ will be showing from Thursday, 24th of November until Saturday, 26th of November at 19:30 in Caedmon Hall. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Hild Bede Theatre