Hypocrisy’s crowning glory

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A heady mix of irreverence, theatricality placed in a set simple in its magnificence, that is ramped up all the way and features contrivance pushed to the giddy hilt, Tartuffe is a tightly focused, beautifully choreographed tribute to Molière, which indulges in such an array of over-the-top shenanigans, you become embroiled in the madness and don’t want it to end.

Featuring actors physically large and small, from Vanessa Cooke as the maid Dorine to Neil McCarthy as Orgon, the beguiled father of the house, it’s an impeccable celebration of overstated gesture, eavesdropping and intrigue in the face of utter unabashed hypocrisy. A tale which enjoyed credence in the 17th century, it remains remarkably prescient in contemporary culture: Tartuffe (Craig Morris) is the charlatan smarmily secreted in the church’s moral values for his own benefit. He slips into the confidence, the heart and the intimate family values of Orgon, to almost devastating – but utterly hilarious – effect. But fear not, there’s a grim and sinister twist in the tale that lends it a devilish tone.

There are some strange anachronisms in the language:  the work was originally written in rhyming couplets and has by and large been translated as such in this version. This is a quality which sometimes causes the flow of the poetic metre to stumble and feel uncomfortable. Nevertheless the couplets that do work and the clarity of their articulation will hold you focused and keep you staving off your own laughter, because the hairpin turns of the plot need to be heard to be properly appreciated.

Capitalising on the physical attributes of her cast, director Sylvaine Strike works like a true caricaturist, making the simple gesture of walking up three steps into a sonata, and the act of crossing one’s legs a sonnet.  Indeed, Madame Pernelle, played by Morris is virtually all mouth, and her presence evokes Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, to excruciatingly funny proportions. Monsieur Loyal, the lawyer, played by William Harding, takes immoderate to another whole level with his size, his sausage and his utterly ingratiating quality which might call up characters such as Dickens’s Uriah Heep, in your mind’s eye.

The music, which represents a pastiche of sound and tunes from the 1920s, is, however, too heavy handed in its approach and it does tend to crush the scenes it infiltrates, jarring and bouncing off the venue’s walls at times. The heaviness of the sound is balanced with acuity with the madly flexible bodies of the cast, however, and this tale of hypocrisy and love, sex and trust is something you wont want to drag yourself away from.

  • Tartuffe is written by Molière, translated from the French by Richard Wilbur and directed by Sylvaine Strike. It features creative input by Sasha Ehlers and Chen Nakar (set), Sasha Ehlers (costume), Oliver Hauser (lighting), Dean Barrett (music composition) and Owen Lonzar (choreography). It is performed by Adrian Alper, Vanessa Cooke, Khutjo Green, William Harding, Vuyelwa Maluleke, Neil McCarthy, Craig Morris, Anele Situlweni and Camilla Waldman at the Fringe, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, until June 25. Visit tartuffe.co.za
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Unstoppable tale for six

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BROKEN family with a tale to tell. From left, David Butler, Lebogang Inno, Sandi Schultz and Chantal Stanfield. Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

HOW BEST DO you tell a story sullied and broken by trauma? Do you blurt it all out in one brutal shriek? Or do you give it context and framework? Do you make it circuitous?  And funny?  Joseph Heller did it. Alan Bleasdale did it. As did Luigi Pirandello. Magicked into contemporary Johannesburg relevance by director Sibusiso Mamba, Six Characters in Search of an Author is a play that begins as you step into the theatre foyer, and it will sweep you away on a journey tinctured and moulded by the philosophical constructs behind characters, actors, ghosts and a story that demands to be heard, but begs not to be told.

The woman mopping the foyer floor minutes before the doors to the theatre opened, got a loud and public scolding by an usher, as he checked audience tickets, officiously, a worried expression on his face. People got twitchy. “Should we go home?” they pondered. “What is the Market Theatre coming to?” they thought.

The doors opened and the same seemingly unrehearsed, seemingly haphazard approach of the performers filtered through, with snippets of music cast from an upright piano, a dog older than God in a car in the parking lot and a general sense of incompletion. Not quite sure how to respond, the audience, roughly respectfully, laughed politely along with the flowing sense of panic about a lack of funding, Brexit, rough and desperate read-throughs, and over dramatised gestures. It really did feel unready. And it was precisely the kind of tricky manipulation of the very mechanisms of theatre that Pirandello used as a foil to his work in 1921.

This astonishingly fine cast, with an exceptional mix of theatre veterans such as Desmond Dube, David Butler and Kate Normington, and relative newcomers and faces from tv, such as Sewende Laan’s Chantal Stanfield and Binnerlanders‘s Sandi Schultz hold this potentially catastrophic piece with the kind of tight steerage and sophisticated authority that really finely honed clowns are capable of. While you might not be able to predict the trajectory of this utterly beautiful piece, you know that you are in safe hands.

With some remarkable costume and set decisions that feature characters who are dead yet present, and others who are trapped in the horror of their own self-fulfilling tale of domestic tragedy, the work is a monster of a piece that takes you all over the place, and gives you everything from snippets of Skeem Saam to bits of Hamlet. In bowing with great respect to the European traditions of Pirandello, and with great humour to the dramatic gestures that punctuated certain theatre traditions, the work develops a powerful momentum maybe twenty minutes in, that prevents you from breathing too loud.

Wise interfolding of Pirandello’s text with asides from the contemporary context, this tale of almost incest and exploitation through several marriages and much sad and hard feeling, offers an overriding sensitive pondering of how the construct of theatre matters to you, a person in the world. It will entertain you completely. And it will haunt you.

  • Six Characters in Search of an Author is written by Luigi Pirandello and adapted and directed by Sibusiso Mamba assisted by incubate Mxolisi Masilela. It features design by Thapelo Mokgosi (lighting), Karabo Legoabe (set) assisted by incubate Nthabiseng Malaka, Nthabiseng Makone (costume) assisted by incubate Gift Nwokorie, and Disney Nonyane (sound). It is performed by David Butler, Desmond Dube, Lebogang Inno, Tebogo Konopi, Rebecca Busi Letwaba, Alick Magemane-Mdlongwa, Phumi Mncayi, Dimpho More, Kate Normington, Gontse Ntshegang, Sandi Schultz, Anele Situlweni and Chantal Stanfield and performs in the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until July 24. Call 0118321641 or visit markettheatre.co.za