New adaptation of Molière’s classic is a politically-charged, cautionary tale.
Considering how much they preach about being holier than thou, the good name of Christianity has been increasingly run into the ground thanks to more than a few bad apples. Not only do we have the recent example of evangelists forcing passengers trapped 30,000 feet in the air to listen to songs of worship; we also have the case of City Harvest Church, and its embezzling, money-grubbing pastor cheating its gullible flock out of their donations.
But none of this is new, and since the dawn of time, every good religion has swarmed with its fair share of conmen and miscreants as they take the Lord’s name in vain. French playwright Molière knew this all too well, and places one such cheat front and centre in his play Tartuffe, with themes and a core message that remains resonant even today. Local theatre company Wild Rice is well aware of this, and gives the classic a brand new staging and new ending in their 2022 interpretation of the play.
Directed by Glen Goei, this new version of Tartuffe sees adapter Joel Tan loosely updating the script, where conman Tartuffe (Benjamin Chow) has infiltrated and upended a rich household by converting its patriarch Orgon (Ivan Heng) into a devout ‘Christian’ and earning his complete trust. This certainly isn’t your grandparents’ Tartuffe, a fact that is made abundantly clear from the get-go, as the cast and ensemble engage in a wild, hedonistic party set to ‘Lady Marmalade’, much like how period TV series and films like Bridgerton (2020/22) or Marie Antoinette (2007) similarly feature anachronistic songs and language. All of this takes place in a gaudy, lavish pink mansion (complete with chandelier), by set designer Wong Chee Wai, that encapsulates the family’s wealth and love for pleasure.
This also sets the stage for how much artistic license Joel Tan has taken with the script. While the cast are dressed accordingly to the period, with tight, bust-enhancing corsets, massive hoop skirts and ruffled collars by Frederick Lee, coiffed blonde wigs by Ashley Lim, and ghostly white powdered faces and exaggerated lips by makeup artist Bobbi Ng, their language and ideals are indisputably contemporary, far and away from previous more Renaissance-styled translations of the work. Do not bring friends who balk at swear words; the script has been laced with wanton f-bombs and plenty of other crass vulgarities, while out of context Bible verses and lyrics to hymns are casually tossed around.
These might have been introduced for the camp and shock factor, but Joel drops the ball in this aspect, as they do not work as intended, especially by the time they’ve been uttered for the umpteenth time. Instead, they clash and distract from the more clever aspects of Joel’s writing, where witty wordplay and veiled insults are better inserted into the characters’ interactions, often when he takes a step back and leans into an imagined dialogue and language that better suits the time, rather than forcing the contemporary aspects down our throats for the sake of it.
An even bigger change is in the characters and storyline itself – this being a Wild Rice play, there are clear contemporary sensibilities and concerns that form a core component of the narrative. This is primarily seen in Orgon’s children, who harbour dangerously newfangled ideals that go against everything conservative French society believes in – while in the original, daughter Mariane wants to marry Valère, the actual love of her life, in this version, there is a secondary scheme to the marriage.
Here, she is killing two birds with one stone – Valère (Shane Mardjuki) is in fact gay, and is in a torrid affair with Mariane’s brother Damis (Dennis Sofian). By acting as Valère’s beard, Mariane will then be allowed to live a life as a free woman, instead of a subservient, powerless wife, while Valère and Damis remain together in secret. The plan goes awry when Orgon refuses to give his blessings, and as Mariane, Oon Shu An delivers the performance of the night, shifting from shallow bimbo to intelligent, self-determined lady putting her entire being into passionately fighting for her independence and ability to choose her own husband.
The theme of independent, frustrated women continues on with Orgon’s wife Elmire (Jo Tan), who, essentially having been sold to this family for stocks and bonds, is in a frigid, sexless marriage. It is no wonder that even in a tense negotiation scene between herself and Tartuffe, she displays a degree of forbidden desire when he flirts aggressively with her, and upon seeing Mariane suffer, commits herself to defending and protecting her stepdaughter at all costs, in a show of womanly solidarity. Even housekeeper Dorine (Pam Oei) stands up for herself whenever she is referred to as a ‘maid’, and shows her capability at managing household affairs behind the scenes. Pam does especially well at bringing out the comedy in her voice alone, milking her scenes for what they’re worth (literally shoving her breasts in an outraged Tartuffe’s face), and encapsulating the character’s fierce, chili-padi nature. All of this culminates in three resentful women, who have no qualms showing their displeasure during a prayer, ending off with a very frustrated ‘ARH-MEN!’
Director Glen Goei has the difficult task of balancing the farcical and darker, dramatic elements of the play. Tartuffe revels in its physical comedy, with exaggerated fainting spells, or sexual-clownery onstage (a fake penis evokes a couple of screams from the audience), slapstick seems to work for the most part. One particularly outstanding scene is when Elmire attempts to seduce Tartuffe into revealing the truth, while Orgon hides under a table. The directorial acrobatics behind choreographing this scene are impressive, as Elmire and Tartuffe engage in an awkward chase, while Elmire also has to keep Orgon out of sight as he keeps popping his head out. Most of all, it is their comedic expressions, from a twitching eyebrow to a gaping mouth of shock that sell it all.
When it’s time to enter the darkness however, Tartuffe manages to jump from light-hearted farce to downright horrifying in an instant. Benjamin Chow, as Tartuffe himself, clad in a red and black coat with bloodshot eyes, seems almost vampiric when he is first introduced and captures the character’s utter villainy with how much the other characters realise he is not one to be trifled with. Throughout his performance, Benjamin’s enigmatic portrayal seems foppish and silly, keeping us guessing just how much we should consider him a threat, almost vulnerable, yet always having a trick up his sleeve to gain the upper hand. Towards the end, his voice changes, allowing the facade to fall away and reveal his true, terrifying nature and showing the extent he is willing to go to destroy them all, a devil in disguise that makes our blood run cold with his cruelty and utter lack of empathy for fellow human beings.
The biggest change to the original is how the happy ending is completely done away with, and in true Wild Rice fashion, takes on a keenly political edge. Without spoiling too much, the final scene finds the family in complete jeopardy, and try as he might, even Orgon’s brother Cleante (Brendon Fernandez), with his brilliant plan, cannot thwart Tartuffe’s schemes. It’s a chilling ending that sobers the audience up with its brutality, and hammers home its central message about the false preachers and venomous snakes that continue to thrive among us in plain sight, quite literally breaking the fourth wall and addressing it to our faces.
More than just a play that skewers self-proclaimed Christians who do not truly understand the word of God, one must look beyond the blasphemy to see how Wild Rice’s Tartuffe is a cautionary tale that reminds us to see these tricksters’ true colours before the damage is done. Considering that the play was out of commission for a week due to COVID, it’s understandable that this return is slightly wobbly at times, with flubbed lines and shaky chemistry. Still, it is an adaptation that captures the Wild Rice spirit of audacious theatre with a heavy dollop of social commentary. Not to mention, with the lifting of social distancing measures, the full house ensured that every scene was greeted with thunderous applause and laughter, all in the theatre bearing witness to this timeless play with an all-important message for us all. One would do well to heed Molière’s warning to see the truth, and rid our homes of blood-sucking, brainwashing parasites before it’s too late.
Photo Credit: Ruey Loon
Molière’s Tartuffe: The Imposter plays till 1st May 2022 at The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre. Tickets available from SISTIC