French comedy is a tricky beast. And humour doesn’t always work well in translation. So Hild Bede Theatre’s (HBT) choice of Molière’s Tartuffe as their Freshers’ play was a brave one. For an audience reared on Shakespeare, and expecting his French equivalent, Molière’s ridiculously exaggerated style can be a surprise, and not always a good one. In this production, we got something more akin to a silly drawing room farce, with the unfortunate flavour of a school play.
We all know that Caedmon Hall is a difficult venue, and the production team here attempted to solve its problems with a split level stage, and semi-circular seating. It was a good idea, but felt underutilised for the entire first half of the play. The set was broadly fit for purpose, mostly consisting of chairs, tables and a sofa just big enough to hide an actor behind. The painted backdrop felt a little amateurish; something simpler and more elegant might have worked better. The music chosen for transitions set the mood nicely, but got rather tiresome due to the length of the blackouts. Use of the lower level created a good sense of intimacy, but when the actors were confined to the upper level it felt like they were miles away from the audience. Another issue in staging arose when, in transitions between scenes, actors were forced to file out slowly and awkwardly through one exit. Blackouts were generally too long, and lighting cues could have been much smoother.
Some good performances from the cast succeeded in overcoming these obstacles. Callum Bowler was appropriately slimy as Tartuffe, the charming fraud at the centre of the story. His creepiness, his dramatic outbursts of piety, and his contorted physicality were all convincing. Raphael Chinwuko captured the naiveté of Orgon, the deluded father of the family, who gets caught up in Tartuffe’s lies. Kesia Schofield gave the stand-out performance as Dorine, the wise-cracking maid. She seemed to be the most confident actor on stage, and managed to liven up the early scenes, which are otherwise quite dull, putting the audience more at ease. The young lovers Mariane and Valere, played by Hannah Stirling and James Lee, worked well together, but I felt they could have pushed their caricature of immature adolescent passion much further. Izaac Theaker’s Cleante got plenty of laughs; his heightened characterisation perfectly fit the tone of the play.
Overall, there were too many moments of stilted movement or of not quite delivering the sense of the lines to make it an entirely comfortable evening of theatre. There were also, however, some laugh-out-loud moments and evidence of creative directorial choices. One particularly comic moment of the denouement, when every character on stage swung their heads round as one to see who was at the door, showed an impulse towards a more absurd, farcical staging which could have worked very well indeed had it been sustained across the entire play.
The most successful characters and scenes were those that embraced Molière’s silliness. Any serious messages about hypocrisy or deceptive piety can still be heard amongst slapstick and ridiculous comic mannerisms. A few more risks in that respect from Director Tania Chakraborti would have been welcome. The ‘seduction’ scene for example, stood out as a unifying of several crucial aspects of Molière’s comic art, carefully crafted into an effective set piece. It was in scenes that aimed for a sense of realism that the energy really dipped and one’s attention felt inclined to wander. The final scene benefited from having all of the major characters on stage at once; they seemed to absorb one another’s energy and ended the performance on a high.
Tartuffe has plenty of room for improvement, but there were clearly some intelligent choices behind the scenes. The play really hit its stride in the final act, which bodes well for the rest of the run. All in all, a fair effort from HBT’s fresher cohort.
Photograph: Hild Bede Theatre