Tartuffe for the 3D Generation [by James Wenley]
If nothing else, Tartuffe is an experience.
‘This is not museum theatre’, warns/promises Silo Theatre in their bus shelter ads around town.
I’m curious about what their definition is, because I certainly don’t feel like Auckland is ‘afflicted’ by productions of this type. Professional Shakespeare’s in period dress for example are the rare exception, not the norm. Museum theatre suggests old, creaky, irrelevant (and I’m sure modern Museums themselves would have something to say against this!).
Silo’s Tartuffe does everything it can to show that its production of the 17th Century play is still edgy, fresh and up-to-the-minute with contemporary Auckland’s high society. Within the first minute we are treated to a real assault on our senses: funky music, garish neon flashing lighting, not to mention the sight of Cameron Rhodes in drag (nice legs). Sophie Henderson is ‘eaten out’, and a turd ends up in the Swimming pool. Yes, a turd. Museum Theatre? Couldn’t be more fresh.
But already, I feel I’m giving too much away. The play’s humour succeeds with both the new – NZ political and pop-culture references plus surprising ‘I can’t believe they went there’ naughtiness, and the old – a firm commedia dell’arte tradition, and of course Moliere’s 1664 religious satire, that probably could still be relevant without the added extras. Tartuffe, let’s not forget, was pretty damn scandalous in its time and was banned for five years. However, these added extras are oh so fun.
Louise Fox, who adapted and mordernised the play for Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre says she kept the ‘architecture’ of Moliere’s original. The language gets an overhaul, but the play is still firmly Moliere’s. In Silo’s hands, the play is adapted again; chocka-full of Aucklandisms, director Shane Bosher imagines the action taking place on Paritai Drive, as a socially dysfunctional family with too-much-money-to-know-what-to-do-with are taken in by a religious spinning charlatan named Tartuffe.
The title character himself doesn’t show up until one hour into the play, but until then we hear an awful lot about him. Madamme Pernelle (Cameron Rhodes) and her son, Orgon (Cameron Rhodes again, ahem) are supporters of Tartuffe, bringing him off the street and into their house. Rhodes is great fun in the dual roles; Pernelle’s on-stage antics are limited to one scene but make an early commanding impression, and his rich wanker Orgon would be imminently likeable if not for his staggering ineptitude and casual racism against his Polynesian maid Dorine. Orgon’s family, all dead set against this Tartuffe guy, are a fun mix of recognisable types – vain wife Elmire (Theresa Healey), posturing Yoga-guy brother-in-law Cleante (Edwin Wright), his blonde daughter Marianne (Sophie Henderson) who mangles her French, and eager-to-please buffoon of a son and heir, wannabe athlete Damis (Tim Carlsen in his over-the-top best).
To the rest of the family’s horror, Orgon Mariane to marry Tartuffe. But she’s in love with Muslim rapper Valere, played by Nathan Whittaker with a ridiculous gangster walk and rap swagger.
As usual with these things, Maid Dorine (the irrepressible Mia Blake) is the smartest member of the household. She talks a lot of sense in her repeated audience asides (especially enjoyable when the other characters onstage look at her strangely when she does so), busts out some wicked dance moves, and is responsible for many hilarious slapstick comic moments. Tavai Fa’Asavalu is a busy member of the cast, performing a number of cameo roles from a poodle to a divine intervention.
And when Paola Rotondo finally joins this cast onstage as Tartuffe, we sit up in our seats a little straighter. Though reminding us of some well-known religious figures, Rotondo’s Tartuffe is in a league of his own. Charming and manipulative, he can spin his way out of any situation. Espousing that “One cannot help the poor by being poor”, he leads the ensemble in an eftpos machine dance to give money to his Compassion Institute. When he convinces Orgon to sign away his money to him, it’s all-out spiritual, physical and sexual war between Tartuffe and the family.
Elizabeth Whiting’s costumes give extra flourish to each of the actors’ charactersations, even to the detail of footwear from Cleante’s Crocs to Elmire’s lace-up ‘exercise’ heels.
Tartuffe is the biggest and brashest Silo Production in a long time. Musicals Assassins and The Threepenny Opera are only shows comparable. With those directed by Oliver Driver and Michael Hurst respectively, Silo’s artist director Shane Bosher must have been waiting a very long time to go all out on a show like this. Naughty, camp, and outrageous, Bosher throws everything into it – swimming pool and all. To give you some idea – by the time Cameron Rhodes and Paola Rotondo have stripped to their underwear and perform a water ballet singing ‘Love lifts you up where you belong’… I’m really not surprised. Having said that, a later sequence involving the swimming pool and actors Rhodes, Healey, Rotondo and Fa’asavalu had me thinking ‘I CAN’T believe I’m seeing this!’.
Moliere’s play is a long one by today’s standard comedy fare, and at times I was feeling the length. It’s a fine line between comedy for story and comedy for comedy’s sake. While most of the contemporary ‘pop-culture’ updates fly, some stand-out as more forced or confused, including an implication that John Key might have been behind it all.
Quibbles aside, as an experience Tartuffe is second to none. It’s the first show to play at Auckland’s new Q space that really couldn’t have been done anywhere else. It’s a true 3D experience being in the audience. The much talked about swimming pool (a year in the planning from designer John Verryt!) divides one seating block (facing the back of the stage) with the other two seating blocks (facing each other on opposite sides). Lighting (Brad Gledhill) is bright, colourful and in your face. An impractical white shag rug covers much of the floor not taken up by the pool (the molting fluff a particular challenge for the actors, especially poor Sophie Henderson on opening). The whole thing screams opulence and excess – those rich bastards.
Bosher adds many treats for audience members paying attention – actors appear on balconies above and even below the stage to listen-in on conversations, and there’s plenty of comic business to catch if you keep your eyes out. Actors come up close, crawling under your legs or touching your head. Depending on where you are sitting, you might even get wet. Like Tartuffe himself, the production completely draws you in. Museum theatre it ain’t – it’s a bright and eye-popping 3D experience.
Directors are always re-interpreting the classics and playing up their ‘fresh’ and ‘relevant’ credentials. Silo’s Tartuffe can claim to be both – its theatrical largesse quite unlike any other I’ve seen this year, and its commentary on Auckland society timely. But these are ultimately gloss, or shag pile fluff if you prefer, to Moliere’s greater commentary on human foibles, narcissism and gullibility – a message that surely will never go out of fashion.
I had a lot of fun at this one: Experience it!
Tartuffe is presented by Silo Theatre and plays at Q until 26th November. More information at Q.