Timely reminder of the power of satire

5 April 2022

The WAAPA third year acting students’ sparkling revival of Moliere’s classic Tartuffe speaks to the kind of cynicism so prevalent in our halls of power today, writes Jan Hallam.

Tartuffe, Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (Acting) ·
Roundhouse Theatre, Edith Cowan University, 4 April 2022 ·

Where’s Moliere when you need him the most? Where, in fact, have all the theatre satirists gone? As much as I love Sammy J, three minutes on ABC TV on a Thursday night before the news is not enough.

And the less said the better about any satirical content that comes to us via Facebook, TikTok or the like.

This WAAPA production of Moliere’s classic reminds us of just how much we miss sharp, witty dramatic commentary on our excessive supply of contemporary Tartuffes, and how much we need our theatre to cast the net and drag in the dross for the audience’s delectation (and education).

First performed in 1664, Tartuffe’s skewering of false piety in the clergy amused the Sun King Louis XIV. But pressure from his archbishop and confessor, Paul Philippe Hardouin de Beaumont de Péréfixe, forced the closure of the play. Clearly, the volume and content of the confessions were weighty.

Dorine is perfectly rendered by Gabrielle Wilson. Photo: Stephen Heath

The WAAPA production by the third year acting students, under the direction of Trent Baker, is a sparkling affair that, in a post-Christian world, speaks in a more secular way of the kind of cynical bastardry we are so familiar with in our halls of power. It also does a very neat job of highlighting Moliere’s keen observance of Europe’s inextricable lurch towards Enlightenment as the cast split neatly between hotheads and rationalists.

The first half is a glorious playground for these ideas as the Pernelle family (a testament themselves to the burgeoning wealthy middle class) struggle with the impact the pious supplicant cum conman Tartuffe has had on their affairs. Wonderfully, he remains suspensefully absent in this stanza.

Papa Orgon (a beautifully paced Remy Danoy) and his imposing mother (William Bastow in full panto glory) are so beguiled with the smooth-talking Tartuffe, they are prepared to sacrifice their family and fortune to cleave him close. Nearer to Tartuffe, the nearer to God.

Vehemently opposed, for obvious reasons, are his children, Mariane (Laura Shaw) and Damis (Blaise Tindale). Orgon orders Mariane to drop her fiancé, Valere (Tinashe Mangwana) to marry Tartuffe, upsetting Damis’s plans to marry Valere’s sister.

Maid Dorine (perfectly rendered by Gabrielle Wilson) is a class agitator, the likes of which probably stormed the Bastille 100 years later. She articulately urges her dim-witted betters to take up arms against Tartuffe, having seen his malevolence the minute he crossed the Pernelle threshold.

A glorious playground for Moliere’s ideas. Pictured is Blaise Tindale as Damis. Photo: Stephen Heath

On the other side of the coin are Orgon’s wife Elmire (Delia Price) and brother Cleante (Radhika Mudaliar) who take Tartuffe on using their superior wit. The struggle to have their voices heard above the shouting is a thesis in itself.

So, we are poised in the second half for the introduction of the “monster”. Our first glimpse is up high, giving expression to Charlotte Meagher’s beautiful set design, as Tartuffe (Brendan Halsey) descends to the stage in full Jude Law a la The Young Pope get-up, right down to designer sunglasses. (A note here on Pia Dewar’s costumes – they are spectacular, and the actors are emboldened and enlarged in the wearing of them.)

Halsey’s Tartuffe is delightfully unctuous and dissembling, but perhaps not as cunning as some Tartuffes of ages past, and that is perhaps a missed opportunity given our own disjointed times throwing up shiploads of rodents. 

Tartuffe is a comedy equivalent of Iago and, while the law of theatre says he must be vanquished, creating a little doubt never goes astray. The victory, of course, must be at the hand of reason and this is served up with elan by Elmire as she teases Tartuffe into betraying himself, and for the lawyer-in-waiting Cleante to hammer in the final nail of his downfall.

As the characters, hot and cold, disentangle themselves from the knot that Tartuffe has created, so too come the laughs and mayhem, and that is a spectacular feeling.

Tartuffe continues until 6 April 2022

Pictured top: Remy Danoy as Orgon and Brendan Halsey as Tartuffe. Photo: Stephen Heath

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Author —
Jan Hallam

Jan Hallam has been watching theatre for a living for the past 30 years. Working for both The West Australian and The Sunday Times, she has been lucky to have experienced just how diverse and talented the Perth arts scene is. When she’s not sitting in the dark, she’s staring at the light of a computer screen as editor and journalist. She’s the queen of the sandpit castle.

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