Over three centuries after the famous French playwright Moliere wrote Tartuffe (1664), or The Imposter, the play continues to find timeless relevance, particularly hitting home in Egypt.
Written as a critique of religious hypocrisy, the satirical comedy sees Orgon naively embracing the deceitful Tartuffe into his grand home, against the better judgment of his family members who see through the imposter’s fake piety.
Beyond the stage
The broadside aimed at religious leaders who preach piety yet practice otherwise is something that hits home, amid echoes of political Islam in Egypt and the ongoing conversation about religious extremism and its effects, locally and internationally.
The Malak Gabr Theatre at the American University in Cairo (AUC) is quite good at being timely, always hosting plays that resonate with what is happening in the country. In December 2011, it hosted Frank Bradley’s direction of Mad Forest: The Inner Life of a Revolution, about the Romanian revolution, echoing elements of the Egyptian revolution fresh after the January 2011 uprising.
Today, Tartuffe is so popular that the name is widely synonymous with the term hypocrite. Yet historically, the play wasn’t always so embraced, having been banned by the Catholic Church for five years after it was written, and accused of ridiculing religion.
Moliere defended his work in three petitions to King Louis XIV, and in a preface to the play’s text explaining how his intent was to mock and expose certain types of religious frauds, and not the faith itself.
Tartuffe, Orgon and Damis in Tartuffe (Photo Ahmed El-Nemr)
Director Jane Page chose to work with Constance Congdon’s adaptation of Tartuffe, which updates the text to rhyming verses, in modern English. Page also set the play in a “McMansion in Orange County, California, Today,” according to the programme notes.
Page is a drama professor and head of the directing programme at the University of California in Irvine, where she was named professor of the year in 2015. She directed many plays across the United States as well as abroad, and at Edinburgh’s renowned Fringe Festival, her direction of Amelia Lives won the Fringe First Award.
She had previously directed Tartuffe in Texas in 2006. In Egypt in 2016, however, Page’s production had the additional benefit of social and political context that helped make the play relevant and believable.
In a statement in the programme notes, Page writes that “the play is also about power: the power of money, sex, parents, religion and government ... ”
In Page's Tartuffe, the comedic aspect is highlighted, at times with a dosage of exaggeration, while the deeper themes, though present, are downplayed.
Her treatment suits the audience of the Malak Gabr Theatre, most of whom are likely to relate to the elements of American culture and sitcom humour that predominates in the performance.
The set is the interior of a duplex, with the first floor containing a reception room or living room and a dining room. The conversations take place between these two spaces, which aren’t separated. There are doors that lead to other rooms on both sides of the set. A large wooden cross is placed above a small altar in the right corner of the dining room.
Upstage is a garden, visible through glass windows and a glass door. A flight of stairs leads to the second floor which has three bedroom doors and a narrow landing that overlooks the first floor like a terrace.
The lighting is fixed, with an ambient yellow glow illuminating all parts of the stage throughout the play.
Orgon’s house, where the events take place, is furnished in modern taste that could fit an American home or a middle-to-high class Egyptian one, particularly the fabric on the couch and its cushions.
The carpets are also modern and placed quite eccentrically, both in the reception and the dining room, with two different carpets overlapping each other to form a T-shape.
One of the elements that strongly emphasised the contemporary setting was the pop music that opened the play and returned between scenes.
Dorine and Cleante in Tartuffe (Photo: Ahmed El-Nemr)
Tartuffe is a classic, and though adaptable, when the time and setting of a classic is changed it is important that the new treatment is believable so the play can ring true in its new context.
Some members of the cast brought interesting and effective interpretations to their characters that capture the essence of Moliere’s Tartuffe in a modern society.
Mrs Pernelle, played by Sara El-Shazly, opens the play. El-Shazly highlighted the overbearing aspect of Mrs Pernelle as she criticises everyone in the house and yet plays the victim of ill treatment. Her presence is so captivating that when she exits the scene dulls for some time.
El-Shazly, a slam poetry performer, confidently bounces through the rhyming verses and manages to make her words fun to hear, despite her snarky remarks to everyone who dares speak to her.
Jason Will skilfully delivers Orgon as a smart man who is gullible when it comes to the sly Tartuffe.
Moliere has left ambiguous the reason behind Orgon’s blind trust and eagerness to embrace Tartuffe, leaving this for the director to play with.
In this version, Orgon explains his drives; having Tartuffe around was his ticket to heaven. Will delivers this scene in such childlike excitement of a relieved man who has found a way out of life alive.
Tartuffe, himself, was commendably portrayed by Ahmed Badran.
Moliere has given his main character a delayed entrance, as the protagonist appears on the stage for the first time in the third act. Yet the preceding conversation centering on him allow us to form an idea about this unique personage.
In Page's mise-en-scene, Tartuffe gets a contemporary grand entrance: music plays on cue as he finally steps out of his room with a smile and raised arms of a rockstar acknowledging his fans. With a flick of his hand the music stops.
His costume, a T-Shirt under a suit with the sleeves rolled to reveal tattooed arms, helped establish the character as a laidback hustler. Yet what really made Badran’s role was his snake-like movements across the stage (that match the pythons tattooed on his forearms), his sly expressions, and honeyed tonality that is sweet enough to hide his deceit.
Badran channeled the confidence of the imposter, who revels in his lies and wit and his slick ability to get away with anything, quite like the air of a pirate.
Orgon and Cleante in Tartuffe (Photo: Ahmed El-Nemr)
Malak Yasser’s treatment of Dorine, the housemaid, made the nosy, know-it-all housekeeper lovable.
She also added an Egyptian flavour to her character. The intention was not to make it relatable to the Egyptian audience and seemed to be more of Yasser's vision of Dorine, drawn from housemaids in Egyptian homes that have become like members of the families they’ve served for many years.
Her intonation, and the way Dorine waves her hands as she insists on imposing her sound advice unto her benefactors’ deaf ears, evokes Egyptian low class mannerisms, or Egyptian housemaid characters that appear in films.
Elmire, Orgon’s wife, played by Farah El-Toukhi, radiates a gentle type of power, mixing sensibility with sweetness, in complementary contrast to the other more feisty members of her family.
Cleante, Orgon’s brother in law, and Damis, Orgon’s son, were almost too similar in their respective mannerism and tonality. Both were similiary frustrated at Orgon’s misplaced faith in Tartuffe, yet it would have served their roles better to be more individualised in their expression of it, to colour the performance with different characters.
Page’s Tratuffe played out as a fun and relatable comedy which best targets a younger audience as opposed to an older one familiar with the classic and it’s serious undercurrents.
It also serves to remind us of the timeless relevance of Tartuffe, particularly in Egypt and the region nowadays.
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