MAKING MERRY HELL WITH MOLIERE
It kicks off with a lad sliding down the banister of Liz Ascroft’s brilliantly skewed mansion set (twisted like the Valkenborch Babel Tower and faintly inscribed with an elegant Fragonard). The first speech is a rant from a ferocious grandma, waving a lapdog in a box and barking for it between lines like: “If I can say this without giving offence, you’re wrong in everything you say and everything you do”. This figure, who handily identifies the family members with a shower of insults, is Janice Connolly: known and loved in Brum for solo shows as “Mrs Barbara Nice”, here gracing the Rep with her matchless comedy-knees and solid, benign hilarity.
That opening gale of merriment sets the tone for an evening of pure frivolity. And why not? Its a recession, its November, its Birmingham, its probably raining. In reviving Moliere’s angry, twice-banned 17c comedy about Tartuffe, a holy-joe hypocrite invading a bourgeois family, Roxana Silbert’s first production for the Rep’s new theatre plays it for fun. Which is not consistently easy, because Chris Campbells new translation eschews the verse form which in French made Moliere’s lengthy philosophical speeches flow more easily. Some may also deplore the missed opportunity to make topical points about fanaticism rather than revelling in farce.
But its funny, and thats what Moliere wanted: excoriated for his parody of religious hypocrisy and of those like the householder Orgon who fall for it, he wrote “the comic is the outward and visible form that nature’s bounty has attached to everything unreasonable, so that we should see and avoid it”. Thus, the broader the better. The utter preposterousness of Tartuffe, a con-man trying to seduce Orgon’s wife Elmire (Sian Brooke), is invisible to the dupe. He tries to force his daughter to marry the interloper, gives him all his money, and ignores every argument and evidence of his felony until – in a second-act scene of comic physical perfection – Elmire forces him to witness her near-rape, and he crawls out from under the table to confront the sagging underpants of his fallen idol.
Tartuffe is Mark Williams, a hippyish sandalled guru (“Laurent, just roughen up my spare hair-shirt”) but the real delight is Paul Hunter’s Orgon, idiotic in orange socks and a Craig-Brown hairdo, the one character who is allowed a certain roundness and genuine pained revelation. The costumes are modern, down to a ra-ra-skirt and leggings on Ayesha Antoine, who is nimble fun as the scornful interfering maidservant. But a periwig does appear and disappear, and the towering white perm on Connolly’s head has pleasing 17c echoes: imagine an albino turkey rashly attempting to mate with a Marie Antoinette up-do.
There are intermittent breaches of the fourth wall, to the crowing delight of the front rows, and happy local jokes in the crevices of Moliere: HS2, local parking, government policy, and the cast’s horror that a visiting bailiff is from Wolverhampton. It ends on a high. What more do you want?
0121 236 4455 or www. birmingham-rep.co.uk to 16 Nov.