Despite some clever reimaginings of Tartuffe, UK stages remain depressingly inattentive to one of the greatest playwrights
In France the 400th anniversary of Molière’s birth is being celebrated in a big way. In Britain it has been greeted with a deafening silence. But then we have always been slightly wary of Molière. It is partly that we lack the histrionic tradition that led CE Montague to write that watching French actors play Molière was “like turning over a portfolio of old and choice theatrical prints”. It is also the difficulty of translation: I can think of a handful of good ones – including Tony Harrison’s The Misanthrope, Christopher Hampton’s Don Juan and Ranjit Bolt’s The School for Wives – but many that are rough without being ready.
We seem much happier doing adaptations and one play that comes up repeatedly is Tartuffe. It is not hard to see why: hypocrisy, especially if it is religious, is always with us. Even Shakespeare jokes about it in Twelfth Night when Feste, donning a curate’s robe, says: “I would I were the first that ever dissembled in such a gown.” But Molière’s Tartuffe is much the greatest play on the subject and has prompted any number of transpositions: the two best I have seen both made use, in radically different ways, of Asian culture.
Jatinder Verma, founder of Tara Arts, did a remarkable National Theatre mobile production back in 1990. Verma discovered that in 1667, just after Molière wrote the first version of Tartuffe, a French traveller, François Bernier, was in India and was struck by the omnipresence of wandering holy men known as fakirs. “Heaven help the family,” wrote Bernier, “that does not give them a good welcome even though everyone knows they have eyes only for the women of the family.” Since Molière’s Tartuffe uses his religiosity to conquer Orgon’s wife, house and wealth, that gave Verma the cue for an Indian Tartuffe.
The result wittily reminded us that Molière’s work was anchored in popular tradition with Verma deploying Kathak dance and Khayal music. But he retained Molière’s plot: the duped Parisian bourgeois, Orgon, became a brocaded Mogul and Tartuffe, wonderfully played by Nizwar Karanj, a lecherous, shaven-headed guru in a saffron dhoti. Far from being mangled Molière, this was proof of the play’s classic status.
It also demonstrated that, if you are going to reimagine a play, it’s no use tinkering at the edges: you have to find a precise social parallel that works on every level. Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto did just that when in 2018 they came up with an RSC Tartuffe that set the play among a family of Birmingham-based British-Pakistani Muslims. This did justice to Molière’s complexity while tackling contemporary issues. Here Orgon was a guilt-ridden businessman anxious to return to his Muslim roots and Tartuffe an aberrant outsider rather than a genuine product of Islam. But perhaps the shrewdest touch was to turn Molière’s maid into a Bosnian Muslim and authorial spokesperson: she capped Tartuffe’s quotes from the Qur’an about female modesty by arguing that there was nothing in it to prove that women should cover their hair or their heads.
Not all updates are equally successful. Birmingham Rep did a Midlands-set Tartuffe in 2013 that turned the play into a vulgar panto. Marcus Gardley’s A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes, seen in London in 2015, treated Tartuffe as a hedonistic healer from the deep south and made up in energy what it lacked in subtlety. Nearer the mark was John Donnelly’s 2019 National Theatre update which became as much a study of bourgeois angst as religious hypocrisy.
Tartuffe is currently everyone’s favourite Molière but other plays have been subject to a culture shift. In 2002 the Scottish playwright Iain Heggie made Molière’s Don Juan a fading glam-rock star and Patrick Marber in Don Juan in Soho turned him, in David Tennant’s 2017 performance, into a priapic Peter Pan. But one test of any Molière production is whether it carries a note of ambivalence. Just as we should momentarily wonder if Tartuffe is more than a con man, Marber reminded us that Molière’s Don Juan, as well as being a heartless libertine, is also a rampant enemy of hypocrisy.
Arguably, the biggest enemy of hypocrisy is Alceste in The Misanthrope. This is the most complex of all Molière’s plays in that Alceste is simultaneously a passionate truth teller and a victim of erotic enslavement. But although Martin Crimp did an agile update – seen with Damian Lewis and Keira Knightley in 2009 – it was hard to believe that a modern hypocrisy-basher would be punished for his sins rather than becoming a media celebrity.
Adaptation, of course, is not the only route to Molière. It would be good, periodically, to see a production set in the plays’ historical context. But what is important is that we still go on staging one of the world’s great dramatists. What I find sad is that, in parochial Britain, his quatercentenary appears to be going signally and shamefully uncelebrated.