Two years ago, Hungarian director László Marton came to Toronto’s Soulpepper to direct Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Royal Comedian, (also known as A Cabal of Hypocrites), a play about French playwright Molière’s run-in with his royal patron, Louis XIV, and the archbishop of Paris after his comedy Tartuffe premiered in 1664.
The best scenes in that production, it was generally agreed, were those where we glimpsed Molière’s plays within Bulgakov’s play. Most delectable was Marton’s metatheatrical staging of the famous seduction scene from Tartuffe – with Diego Matamoros playing Molière playing the religious hypocrite Tartuffe, trying to seduce Raquel Duffy playing the actress Madeleine Béjart playing Elmire, atop a table concealing her husband.
Flash forward to this summer, and Marton is, as many of us who were in the audience of The Royal Comedians wished, directing Tartuffe at Soulpepper. And we get to see that scene play out, with the same casting, in the context of a full production.
Did we wish wisely? In fact, this entire Tartuffe is even better than hoped for: It’s Marton’s best work for Soulpepper since his take on Ibsen’s The Wild Duck in 2005, and one of the funniest productions of a Molière play on an English-Canadian stage in a long while.
While it may have angered the archbishop in the 17th century, Tartuffe no longer registers as particularly impious in the age of raging atheists such as Richard Dawkins and, rest in peace, Christopher Hitchens. Anything even hovering on the edge of sacrilegious is immediately explained and apologized for in Molière’s brilliant but ultimately obsequious play.
Tartuffe (Matamoros at his most voracious) is actually a straightforward con man who inspires Orgon (Oliver Dennis at his stubborn best) to hand over his property and his daughter to him with displays of false piety. Everyone else in his family can see through his ruse, however, even the maid Dorine (a wonderful Oyin Oladejo).
Marton has found in Tartuffe, then, a more enduring theme: that of our general propensity to be taken in by beautiful performances, even and perhaps especially when it is very clear that they are lies. The director emphasizes this by beginning his production with the set facing away from the audience, and with Soulpepper’s actors coming onto the stage to get into their costumes in front of us. (They first put on 17th-century wigs and robes, then remove them and opt for modern dress.)
American poet Richard Wilbur’s classic 1963 translation, which skillfully reduces the rich French sauce of Molière’s alexandrines into the thick English glaze of iambic pentameter, is used throughout, but the actors only rarely let themselves be tethered to rhythm or rhyme. Instead, they speak the lines as naturalistically as possible, often very quietly and sometimes at a whisper.
The occasional inaudibility of this enraged one audience member two rows behind me (she cried out “Jesus Christ!” at intermission), but it is another example of the creative conflict between reality and illusion in this production. Another effect of such theatrical sacrilege is to turn the audience into eavesdroppers – an appropriate posture in a play where the characters are always listening behind doors, in closets and, most famously, under tables.
Indeed, that scene where Tartuffe’s true nature is revealed to Orgon as the hypocrite tries to seduce Elmire on top of a table is worth the two-year wait. Diego Matamoros plays the title character as a man whose appetites are the only true aspect of his nature. Right before intermission, he devours a giant bunch of grapes in front of the audience, juice running down his face and body, and when he finally gets Orgon’s wife Elmire (Duffy) alone on the table, he threatens to devour her, too. It’s raunchy – not an adjective normally applied to Molière – and there’s even the suggestion in Duffy’s performance that Elmire may actually find Tartuffe’s hunger appealing, adding sizzle to scenes normally presented prudishly.
Tartuffe’s younger cast members, pulled from the Soulpepper Academy, are generally up to the level of the company regulars. There are a couple of fine discoveries here – notably Colin Palangio as Orgon’s hot-headed son Damis, and Gordon Hecht as the dorkily ineffectual suitor Valère. As Tartuffe’s silent sidekick, Frank Cox-O’Connell manages to score one of the evening’s biggest laughs with a sly smile.
It’s not all laughter, either. Marton dangles the possibility of tragedy before us at the end. It’s translator Wilbur who noted that Orgon’s betrayal of his family creates an atmosphere that is “the comic equivalent of King Lear’s.” And you feel that here, until all is corrected in a daffy deus ex machina that has rarely been more pleasurable in its absurdity.
Usually when watching Tartuffe, it’s easy to think of Orgon as merely stupid for not seeing what is in front of him. But as audience members, we are always seeing and not seeing what is in front of us. Marton’s production invites us to think about the other moments in our lives when we suspend our disbelief. The success of certain pandering politicians makes me wonder whether it is, sadly, only on stage that the Orgons are outnumbered.