Tartuffe | Bell Shakespeare
Every now and again there is a production which stumbles into the light, into the expectant eyes, minds, hearts of an audience and explodes with such intelligence, rigor and joy that it is irrepressible. The audience squeals and hums with delight, the box office is exhausted and the artists have that warm, nourished glow of knowing that the work will sit as an ultimate touchstone of true delights in their wide reaching careers.
Peter Evans’ production of Justin Fleming’s re-penning of Tartuffe is one such production.
The reviews have been glorious, syrupy effusions – full of praise for the production, the script and performances:
John McCallum The Australian
Polly Simons for Stage Noise
Chris Hook writes for The Daily Telegraph
Jessica Keath for The Guardian
Ben Neutze for Daily Review
There has been in recent years a fairly hefty national discussion about the role of adaptation on the main stages – best read Alison Croggon for the overview, the question of Australia’s theatrical exhaustion as proposed by Dr Julian Meyrick in his platform Paper “The Retreat of Out National Drama” which you can read about here and also what constitutes an “Australian Play” – best read Jane Howard here. – and yet most of these concerns melt into oblivion when there is a production like Tartuffe staring us in the face.
As a long time cheerleader of Australian playwrights, and a long time skeptic of the notion of classics for classic’s sake – Tartuffe answered many industrial injustices I have for a long time squirmed at. My quibbles about the ancient western canon being trotted out by mainstages like a trophy wife of international cultural capital, are fairly basic and point to the sticky and undesirable residue of Australia’s lingering cultural cringe. Such quibbles include:
1. The tendency for classic text to be delivered in a variety of British accents (yes even mainstage productions of classical Greek tragedies have had the royal vocal treatment)
2. The production budget not including a wage for a playwright
3. The complete dismissal of Australian social or political life in reference to the themes and the style of the material
4. A tendency for classical plays to whitewash casting which refuses to accurately reflect the diverse backgrounds of modern Australia on our stages.
5. The programming of classic plays guarantees a cookie-cutter audience development strategies -eg schools – and does not seek to establish new audiences for new writers.
And there are countless arguments about who does this – and how and if we should have cultural KPIs on art -or on audience development. And these discussions will be constant and ongoing.
In the instance of Bell Shakespeare’s production of Justin Fleming’s Tartuffe – we see all these quibbles smashed and reduced to insignificance: the cultural and industrial aspects addressed, cleared the way for what is a production which is uniquely self-aware of nationality, of language and vernacular, of cynical political sensibility – including hearty irreverence and an ability to lean deeply into larrikinism, and of course our exceptional local artists… all aligned under the furrowed gaze of Peter Evans to make what will be remembered as the production to which all aspired to reach the heady heights of what our main stage companies do best.
This is Bell Shakespeare at it’s best – smart, funny, relevant, epic, sexy, saucy, cheeky, brutal fun.