In one corner of the opulent set for this new version of Tartuffe stands a giant golden replica of Michelangelo’s David draped in a pink boa. At one point the statue is turned 180 degrees so that David’s magnificent gilded backside faces the audience in what I suspect is the theatrical equivalent of a cheeky wink.
This is just one of the many comic delights scattered throughout John Donnelly’s modern reworking of Moliere’s 17th century French farce.
Subtitled “The Imposter”, the story takes place in a mansion in contemporary Highgate where Orgon (Kevin Doyle) is having a personal crisis over his wealthy lifestyle and has invited into his home the charismatic outsider Tartuffe (Denis O’Hare). “It’s not an obsession, it’s an awakening,” Orgon tells his concerned family, who brand the strangely-dressed interloper “a zealot”.
This being a farce, it seems appropriate that when he does appear on stage – almost an hour into the play – Tartuffe isn’t wearing any trousers, just some spotty pants and a t-shirt. It’s a great pay-off after a long build up. O’Hare’s slippery character has beads and a top-knot and speaks with a European accent that’s hard to pin down. It’s a magnetic performance, which begins even before the play starts with O’Hare flinging daffodils to audience members while they are still silencing their phones.
The whole cast is uniformly excellent. As Orgon, Doyle at times seems to be channelling Basil Fawlty. Olivia Williams, as his wife Elmire, is superb in the slapstick seduction scene where she attempts to expose Tartuffe’s lechery, as is Geoffrey Lumb as the ridiculous street poet Valere (“You know I don’t do ones that rhyme!”)
I also enjoyed Enyi Okoronkwo and Kitty Archer as Orgon’s privileged offspring Damis and Mariane, while Kathy Kiera Clarke has some of the best lines as housekeeper Dorine. “Killing yourself is no laughing matter,” she deadpans. “There are downsides.”
Under Blanche McIntyre’s direction, this modern take on Moliere’s classic moves at a great pace and is the funniest play I’ve seen in a long time, all of which goes to make the serious message that Tartuffe delivers in his closing address to the audience all the more powerful.
Tartuffe is at the National Theatre in London until 30 April