Podcast 104: Tartuffe: The Imposter

Critics Matthew Lyon, Nabilah Said and Naeem Kapadia discuss Wild Rice's bold adaptation of Tartuffe: The Imposter by Molière in the latest ArtsEquator Theatre Podcast. 

In this latest ArtsEquator Theatre Podcast, Matthew Lyon, Nabilah Said and Naeem Kapadia discuss the recent production, Tartuffe: The Imposter, written by Molière and presented by Wild Rice. The cast comprised Ivan Heng, Benjamin Chow, Pam Oei, Oon Shu An, Jo Tan, Shane Mardjuki, Brendon Fernandez and Dennis Sofian, and the play was directed by Glen Goei.

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Podcast Transcript 

Nabilah Said (NS): Hello everyone and welcome to the ArtsEquator Theatre Podcast. My name is Nabilah Said and I’m joined by Matt Lyon.

Matt Lyon (ML): Hello.

NS: Naeem Kapadia. 

Naeem Kapadia (NK): Hello. 

NS: And yeah, we’re back to talk about Tartuffe today by Wild Rice. So this is an adaptation of the original French play by Molière, written in the 1660s (so that’s 400 years ago) and adapted by playwright Joel Tan and directed by Glen Goei.

So, just a quick summary of the plot. In Tartuffe, we see this wealthy family headed by Orgon, who has married a younger woman, and they have two children from a previous marriage called Damis and Mariane. And the household is besieged by an unwelcome presence in the form of Tartuffe, this religious Christian preacher (probably in quotes), but really a con artist, who was actually living on the streets before he was invited by Orgon to live in the house, as a guest. Orgon is extremely taken by this man (very seduced by him to some extent,) so that he becomes really unbearably restrictive to his family and blind to criticism as well.

And he kind of slowly, as the play progresses, cedes more and more power to Tartuffe, until Tartuffe becomes the powerful figure in the play. And the other characters include Elmire’s brother Cléante, Dorine their maid, Valère, who Mariane wants to marry in a kind of sham marriage arrangement, and then also Madame Pernelle who is kind of like a matriarch figure, the mother of Orgon, a crotchety woman who doesn’t like Elmire, the so-called stepmother figure who no one likes, I guess.

Yeah. The family is painted as a very, very wealthy family with questionable morals (let’s put it that way). So basically, this is Wild Rice’s version of Tartuffe. And the reason why I say this is Joel makes quite a lot of departures from the original and maybe amplifying, maybe adding to some of the themes of the original by Molière. Yeah, maybe Naeem, I could start with you. How did you find Tartuffe

NK: Yeah. So, I should add that Glen, as he mentions even in the program, has been wanting to stage a version of Tartuffe for years and years and has gone through countless existing versions out there, but has not found something that really spoke to him. So he commissioned Joel Tan to write a version for him that spoke to our times. And obviously, Joel’s version of Tartuffe is a very significant departure from the original. It’s really a complete rewrite of the play. And I think one of the first big changes he made was to introduce a gay relationship.

So in this version, Damis the son of Orgon is actually in a clandestine gay relationship with a Valère, the man who his sister is about to marry. And the whole reason for the marriage is that it’s a sham so that the sister can basically lead a modern life of, you know, travel and adventure and not be confined to domesticity. And the two gay lovers can have a relationship behind closed doors, which would otherwise be denied to them. So there’s a lot of exposition about this gay relationship and a lot of rather lurid sexual gags that the play is awash with and therefore fully deserving of the R18 rating. So that’s one big change that he’s made.

And the other big change he’s made, I guess, would be introducing a lot of feminist themes into the play. So the motivation of the daughter Mariane is far more feminist. She is clearly someone who chafes against this idea of being a woman in a world ruled by men (I think she talks about how she wants independence and all of that). And Elmire, who is the wife character, starts off as being someone who is a bit of a rival to Mariane, this younger wife, but they grow into allies, as Elmire wants to prevent Mariane from marrying Tartuffe, the man who the husband is so taken in by. And she tries her best to stop this marriage from taking place and they become allies in the end.

So it’s the idea of women supporting women and standing up for each other, that very feminist kind of slant. So that’s two of the bigger changes, but I think there are a lot of other nuances that Joel’s introduced. So Matt, maybe you have something to add on that.

ML: I was dreading seeing this play because I directed it 10 years ago. I directed the Richard Wilbur version (which is in verse and is just amazingly funny). But I changed about 10% of it to make it fit the local context. And this year, without knowing Wild Rice was doing it, I decided to do my own translation and keep it in verse. And so I was thinking I was going to go in and watch Wild Rice—and obviously, I’d be going in with incredible biases. And I was afraid to be sitting there going, [pretentious voice] “Well, actually I do it so much better. What are you thinking, you fools?”

NS: I like that voice.

ML: [pretentious voice] “Oh, yes. I’ll keep it up, shall I?”

NK: Reminds me of the critic in Ratatouille for some reason.

ML: Oh yeah!

[Laughter.]

ML: But fortunately, that really didn’t come up. Because I think if you’re translating Tartuffe, you’ve got three decisions to make straight away. Do you keep it in verse? In the original, it’s rhyming couplets in French alexandrines (which most translators, if they’re translating it into verse, form into iambic pentameter rhymed AA BB CC). And I decided to keep the verse and Joel decided to go to prose. And then, do you change the time? And I decided to change the time to the present day, and he decided to keep it in the 17th century. And then do you change the place? I’ve Singaporeanised it; he has not. At that point, they are completely different plays. So I will now stop talking about mine, it’s irrelevant to this discussion, except that I feel that whichever way you decide to go, there are certain compromises – if you go left, you can’t have everything that the right hand path would have offered you, and vice versa. So it may be interesting to talk about some of the things that he necessarily—and deliberately, I’m sure—sacrificed in order to get what he had.

But yes, he’s gone for a version which tones down some of the farcical elements and attempts to make space for more modern issues—in terms of quantity, and probably in terms of seriousness, and in terms of attempted impact. The original is really quite simple. It’s about religious hypocrisy—and I guess what we’d these days call gaslighting and gullibility, and fake news and things. Whereas he, as you say, has introduced homosexuality and feminism as the main two. But he’s also introduced atheism versus religion. He’s also introduced the income gap. This is a family of one-percenters who have taken in somebody from the lower stratum of society. He also introduced the idea of modern families with the stepmother being disliked by the children (which was not at all in the original).

And so, he’s created the play he wanted to write. I think it’s then a little bit disingenuous that in the program notes, he talks about a French play reaching out from the 17th century and having so much to say about us, because he’s just stuck in a load of stuff that wasn’t there. And he might say, “Oh, well, I excavated from the text.” Okay, but you had to dig a long way to do that.

But I like it. I love the ambition. It has a kind of a similar relationship to the source material that West Side Story has to Romeo and Juliet (and I like West Side Story a lot better than I like Romeo and Juliet). And here, I think he’s made a very interesting, very modern play with a relationship to Tartuffe, that I’m very glad to see—even though ultimately I’m not sure if everything gets pulled off entirely… Nabilah?

NS: Yeah. So I’m just thinking about the question of style perhaps, of what Joel was trying to go for? So I remember how like the opening—remember, while waiting for people to kind of stream into the theatre—

NK: Where we had chamber music.

NS: —Yeah, really dignified. And then the moment the play opens, it’s like Lady Marmalade and the characters in a debauchery kind of scene. And I was like oh okay, I kind of like got what they were kind of trying to go for. And the modern touches—I know, Matt, you were saying they were adding things that weren’t there or they were really having to dig deep—I feel like it was necessary.

I don’t know like… so when I was watching the family and thinking about what you said, Matt, about not liking these characters a lot because they’re just one-percenters that we are not really meant to like, right?—And I was comparing them to seeing the Kardashians or the Osbournes on stage, where (okay, Osbournes is a bit more dated, the Kardashians is probably more timely but you can’t really like these characters, right?) And so because of that, Tartuffe as a villain becomes kind of deflated in some sense…Of course, visually when Tartuffe actually appears… he appears like well after one hour.

ML: He appears in Act 3.

NS: Really?

ML: Out of 5.

NS: Wow. So the moment he appears, it’s meant to be like, “Wow, like the villain is here!” But I’m like, I’ve just seen the Kardashians and like, all the terrible things they’ve done. This is Rasputin maybe, but tonally the effect of the villain wasn’t as strong as I thought it was going to be.

ML: I absolutely agree. And that’s one of the things that I think he’s sacrificed to bring in as many themes as he has. The original is often subtitled Tartuffe: The Imposter or Tartuffe: The Hypocrite, I can’t remember which one has this gone for—

NS: The imposter.

ML: —Yeah. But here, a better subtitle would be The Imposters or The Hypocrites. Because you have these gay people who are trying to pretend to be straight, you have the daughter who is trying to pretend to be religious in order to fool her father. They have clearly inherited wealth that does not appear to be justified by their merit. They’re trying to put on the facade of being a happy family and they tell each other to fuck off all the time.

So they are… horrible people. And I’m not sure how much that was intended. And it certainly does lessen the impact of Tartuffe’s appearance, which in a traditional staging should be like—when I staged it 10 years ago, Tartuffe entered and everybody laughed for 10 seconds. And he hadn’t said anything. Because he’s been—

NK: He’s been built up.

ML: —Built up so much. It’s one of the easiest laughs to get in theatre: Tartuffe’s entrance, audience rolling on floor. That doesn’t happen here. I wonder how much that needed to have been sacrificed because I think that if you cut the parts where they disparage him for being poor, and where so much of the family’s onstage behaviour seems to be something that they can do because they’re rich, and therefore why not?: ‘Let’s throw ostentatiously extravagant parties!’ ‘Let’s have sex in front of the servants and not go off to a bedroom somewhere’.

If they hadn’t introduced that element, I think I would have liked the characters more and I think we could still have had the feminism and the homosexuality, maybe even the atheism in there. So I think that the income gap theme or thread that was in there, I think that was a bit of a regrettable choice.

NS: For me, I don’t think it’s a regrettable choice in the sense that I feel that we live in a world where this is the state of how rich people are. So I kind of feel like Joel was going for, like, we are used to this thing and it’s terrible and I’m putting it on stage. But because of that, you can’t really get the effect of Tartuffe, the play by Molière.

ML: Yeah, I think it’s probably a deliberate sacrifice. He was clearly going for what you say. I would have yet again, probably gone a different way there.

NK: And I did not—I just somehow feel that it’s also very influenced by pop culture.

NS: Yes, exactly.

NK: It is so because you know (honestly, and I’m just going to rattle off Netflix names here which everyone is going to recognise), but like I was thinking of Bling Empire. I was thinking of Bridgerton. You know, it’s all these things which we’ve been seeing—like you know people in period costumes speaking in a very modern way, ostentatious displays of wealth. We obviously got elements of this Crazy Rich Asians because they were crazy (well, not Asian I suppose they’re not meant to be). You know, crazy rich of their time basically, the one-percenters doing pretty much whatever they want, throwing these extravagant, ostentatious parties, and they’re not very likeable characters.

I agree with you, Matt. I think introducing the homosexuality, introducing the feminism was nice, and these were important, modern themes. But adding all those other things like the dislike towards the stepmother at the start—I think there were all these comments about her being the younger woman who’s just kind of come in and—

NS: She’s kind of painted almost as a social climber, right?

NK: —Yeah, so there was all of that. She’s kind of painted as a bit of a villain herself and then they’re all not very likeable because they’re kind of quite contemptuous against the poor and debauched in their own way. So I think just adding all of that maybe was a bit too much. There was just so much exposition that it took ages for us to finally get to the point where we’re finally trying to unmask Tartuffe.

And yes, I think the main point is that Tartuffe’s entrance just gets muted. And this is completely despite the fact that Benjamin Chow actually does a really good job. Ben has obviously been a fixture of the scene for many years now and has done some great roles. He embodied the role so well, just in portraying that perfect face of piety. But at the same time, you can see that it’s all an act, and even when this is exposed and his evil is revealed in the end, he maintains that evil and owns it and manages that transition really well.

I think it was all the small little tics, the way in which he carried himself—there was a point where he convulsed on the floor in tongues—all these nuances which he brought to the character, which I thought were very well done. And unfortunately, it just felt muted because we had just seen a sexual gag between two men where one of them’s hopping around without his trousers and things like that.

NS: So I guess like what you’re trying to say, or how I see it is that we’ve already seen vulgarity in a very stark form in the previous scenes. So then when Tartuffe comes, it isn’t that vulgar really. It’s like… okay? It’s one of the terrible things that’s happening in this play, but not really the most evil thing.

But maybe just on that note of Benjamin Chow, so I don’t know what style and I know like—Matt, you also liked Ben’s portrayal of it.

ML: Loved it.

NS: Yeah, I found it slightly cartoonish, in a kind of weird way. It’s probably direction, but even the way he was kind of scrunching his face—I was like, “Wow this exaggerated style is really interesting. But I’ve not really seen it in the other characters.” So it’s kind of like wondering, what was the decision with that choice there.

ML: Well, I will see your slightly cartoonish and I’ll raise you very cartoonish.

NS: [Laughs.]

ML: But I loved that. It was just the highest standard of Pixar Animation: absolute precision, every frame a picture. I think they needed to get some of that stylistic separation, because his entrance doesn’t have the impact anymore for all the reasons that we’ve said. So then how is he not like all the others? And it’s because he takes that extremely stylised, pictorial acting style even further.

You could imagine with his character flipping through an old book of black and white illustrations, right? You turn the page, and there you are looking at Benjamin Chow playing Tartuffe. And the way he moves between them so fluidly or sometimes so sharply. And then when the play turns more serious, and he has power over the family, and he doesn’t have to hide anymore, also dropping exactly the right amount of that artifice so that you take his threat very seriously, and credibly. His character isn’t written with the widest tonal range in the play, but I think it is written with the highest requirement for precision, and he absolutely nailed it. I think the highest requirement for tonal range is probably Jo Tan’s character. She also nailed it.

NK: Yeah, Jo was fantastic. I mean, especially in the scene where she is trying to get Tartuffe to seduce her while the husband is hidden underneath the table. And yeah, I think she just managed that transition well. I think she started off painted as this social climber/villain sort of thing, not really getting along with the daughter. But she becomes this feminist maternal figure who wants to rescue the family from the clutches of this charlatan. And I think she did it really well while still maintaining all of the comic elements, I mean, fantastic facial expressions. And you know, she’s a fantastic comedy actor to begin with. But I think she managed that alongside the drama really well, and I really enjoyed her performance.

ML: I’m not sure, however, that everybody quite manages the tonal range. And I think the tonal range was… too big to handle. I love the ambition, but there’s a point where you should possibly stop putting presents in the box. It’s a beautiful box, there’s glitter all over it. We’ve managed to get the lid on, wrap a ribbon around it, but it’s clearly bulging, and maybe just tearing in the corner.

And so we had actors like… I think probably Shu An suffered the most from having a tonal range that I don’t think is playable. Because she’s got to be that almost Greek-tragedy “Oh, how I have suffered.” And then she’s got to make a load of dick jokes… It occurred to me just before the interval that what I was watching was somebody trying to do both halves of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 at once. And if you know Cloud 9, it starts in the Victorian era with that incredibly strong, unquestionable patriarchy; and marginalised characters (gay people, women) just trying to begin to pull it the threads of the edge of that overwhelmingly draped fabric. And then after the interval of that play, we’re in the modern age, and by now everybody’s pulling up those threads, and we see how thin the tapestry is. But here, Joel—especially in the script—was trying to go from “No, this is really the 17th century and the patriarchy is dominant” to “I’m going to scream at my father to fuck off”. And also go from tragedy to basically farce.

That’s a LOT to manage… and it felt disconcerting for me and not even in an interesting way. It just felt like it fell apart at the seams in a couple of scenes. Although, others like Jo’s has managed it. 

I was kind of hoping for a starker treatment in the direction. If you imagine the scene where Shu An’s character is speaking to her father (played by Ivan), and maybe you put her in half of the stage with a very cold, stark light that throws hard shadows, and then you put him in the warm glow of the enlightenment—then when they speak to each other, maybe we see that they are in absolutely starkly different worlds. But I couldn’t imagine that the world of the play was big enough to securely contain all the elements that had been stuffed into it.

NS: I actually—when you mentioned dick jokes, I kind of forgot that she did that, because I felt like Shu An was more or less in the more dramatic side of things tonally and how she portrayed the character from the start, right? And for me only in that monologue where she kind of speaks against her father, I was actually quite impressed by her acting: like she kind of redeemed herself in the acting—

ML: Yeah she did it really well.

NS: —But I kind of forgot what play I was in. I was like, “Oh, I’m in a dramatic Shakespearean play.” You know?

ML: But those dick jokes and those farce mannerisms, she does that too. It’s just that you don’t want to accept it because the heart of her character is clearly on the Greek tragedy side.

NS: Yes, exactly. So it felt like maybe she really dug deep into that part of her character. And so those were really, really portrayed effectively for me.

NK: Yeah. But then exactly as you say right, because she was part of that whole sexual gags and everything. But then she throws herself on the floor, weeping and wailing, like, “Oh, I have to marry Tartuffe!” “Oh, I’m ruined!” “Oh, Father!” you know, it becomes a full-on tragedy. And I think just squaring that with the way in which we have these panto sex scenes, it just felt a little much. It was obviously trying its best to push boundaries. But, you know, question whether it had to press every single button.

And I mean, Joel, I have to say—so we should talk a little bit about Joel’s adaptation—I mean, he chooses to kind of obviously set it in the original 17th century. But they obviously speak in a modern style (there are a lot of F-bombs thrown around). There’s quite a play of language as well. And I think that’s where it’s obviously not modern-day, but at the same time, kind of very playful with a lot of double entendres and things, like there were references “tumesce my soul.” And you know, all of these kinds of like sex gags which I think people absolutely lapped up and relished. So I did enjoy the wordplay which he brought into this. And I felt that sometimes you could have just worked with the wordplay and not actually shown so much on stage, because that was actually very, very funny in itself.

NS: There were a lot of repetitions of lines that almost felt like people being hit on the head multiple times about the same point. So something like, “Oh he’s a free thinker” said with scorn. Or even like (we haven’t talked about the ending) but the ending when they say, “who has the ear of the King?” (I think it’s repeated like three times in just a span of two minutes or something.) So I felt like a lot of times things were carried a smidge too far—

NK: Yes.

NS: —Where you feel “Oh, it’s become a bit obvious now.” Which is a bit of a shame because I feel Joel is a really, really skilled and talented writer.

ML: It’s tricky because you can’t do what the original French does. The original French is in rhyming couplets. And if you think of rhyming couplets and verse in English… Joel said in his program, it can end up, if you’re not careful, like Dr. Seuss. It doesn’t in French. French rhymes a little bit more naturally than English. So that when you get a rhyme, it doesn’t ‘zing’ necessarily. It can, but it doesn’t have to.

On the other hand, it does add a certain comic and heightened quality. But it also lends itself a little bit more to the serious stuff. So you get a very high-comedy approach in French, whereas when you translate it into English, if you go into rhyming couplet verse, you end up much more on the farce side. And if you go into prose, you end up much more on the dramatic side.

So you’ve really got to pick where you’re going. And I do think that some of that insistence on making the joke again and again (which you wouldn’t have to do if you were writing verse) probably needed to be resisted a little bit more carefully. But that was quite minor. I was very happy with the script, and I thought that all the lines did seem sayable by the characters. In terms of the dialogue, it worked for me.

NK: Yeah, it definitely did. And I think it was a very, very captivating script. I mean, despite the length of it, I was really just taken in by the performance. The actors as an ensemble, I think just really worked very, very well together. I’m not sure whether this play was at its best potential in a thrust staging. I was lucky to have gotten a really central seat. But I think if you were seated at the sides, you may not have really appreciated some of the scenes to their best intentions, because blocking is just not great at some points, especially where you have two actors walking around a thrust talking to each other. And it’s just kind of difficult to sort of get a really good visualisation of what’s going on for some of the gags and things like that.

So that was just a minor bit, but I guess one thing we should talk about is the ending, because that is a huge addition which Joel made. You know, obviously in the original, they’re in an impossible situation, Tartuffe threatened Orgon to reveal all these incriminating letters and the bailiff comes in to presumably arrest Orgon, but suddenly arrests Tartuffe instead, and he’s denounced.

But here what happens is there’s a new scene where before the King, who’s played by Pam Oei who played Dorine the maid, and she’s the King, and Tartuffe is revealed to be her chief adviser. And the king is completely taken in by the words and ways of Tartuffe now. So he’s basically gotten into the ear of the king and poor Orgon is sentenced to death—it sort of becomes much darker, more of a cautionary tale, no longer that kind of farce where all’s well that ends well. Then he’s given a final scene where he sort of sits on the crown—

ML: No, he doesn’t.

He sits on the throne. [Laughs.]

NK: He sits on the throne! And goes into this almost like Richard the Third kind of like, “Oh, now there’s no stopping my ambition, maybe now I can get the King next.” That sort of thing—

NS: No, not just that, but he kind of speaks to the audience. And he’s like, “Who is your King listening to?”

NK: —And it just felt a bit too heavy handed for me. Like I thought, you know, it’s dark, it’s pretty shocking, just him being alone on the stage, maybe even just looking at the throne, or just maybe even sitting on it would have already achieved that. Like, we don’t need to have that full monologue where he beats us around the head about like, “Oh, look what I’ve done, what could happen in your society?” You know, that sort of thing.

NS: Yeah, exactly.

NK: But still, I think that ending was great. It just changes the tone so much. It just makes us realise that yes, you know, this is what happens. Devastation happens when you’re taken in by a charlatan, when you let hypocrisy rule the day, and there are real costs involved.

NS: And that kind of marks the departure from it being like a pure pantomime, right? Like where there’s an obvious consequence?

NK: Yes.

ML: Yes, I think so. And we also did have a little bit of a tonal shift there. And while I wasn’t fully convinced by all the tonal shifts the play had attempted up to that point, I think this one worked. We have Pam playing the King with a very Singaporean patriarchal kind of accent. And we even have a little bit of rhyming just to lubricate that hard left stylistic turn. So I like that, and you HAVE to change the ending in Tartuffe. You can’t do the ending as it’s originally written because it was very much a ‘worked for its original time and place’ thing. If you were in the audience and knew the politics that were happening at the time with why Molière was able to stage it now and he wasn’t able to stage it for the previous five years, you would have completely got what he was doing. But now you just think “Deus ex machina: why has the plot been solved so unsatisfyingly?” So yeah, I think it was a good call. But I agree with you, the monologue at the end didn’t work because we already know that. Like, how stupid do you think we are? You have absolutely proved already everything you go on to say in that completely unnecessary monologue.

NS: Yeah. And I guess like just putting in a screwdriver into our stomachs of like, “Oh, this is a political play, *wink wink*” kind of thing.

ML: Yeah. If we don’t know that already, I don’t think the last monologue is going to help.

NS: Yeah.

NK: Yeah. There’s a very clear tonal shift, because it sort of becomes a tragedy really—like everyone’s wailing and it’s serious, real consequences and everything. But yeah, I think at the end of the day, that scene worked, even though there was that hard left. I appreciated it. I think Joel, all in all, did a great job with this rewrite. It is not an easy play to rewrite so substantially, and still try to hit so many different beats in terms of comedy and tragedy and big themes and everything.

So it was very nice. And I think honestly (looking back at what Wild Rice has done in terms of their reinterpretation of world classics), this to me is something that definitely deserves to be revived and shown again alongside their other classics, like Animal Farm and The Importance of Being Earnest. I mean, I think it’s a very good version of Tartuffe and obviously assisted by great technical elements.

I mean, Wong Chee Wai had this candy coloured pink set, you know, with a chandelier and all the bling that went along with it. Beautiful costumes by Frederick Lee that were very, very nicely done. I’m not sure whether they necessarily distinguished each of the archetypes of the characters, as you were saying Matt?

ML: I think, yeah as I said before we started recording, this version necessarily sacrificed some of the archetypes by giving them serious themes that they wanted to explore. And then as a costumer, I guess it’s not really your fault if you can’t tell apart the daughter and the stepmother based on what they’re wearing. Like—if you go the other way, and you really decide to make it more of a stereotype/archetype play, and you don’t include so many issues that complicate that idea—you absolutely can make it distinguishable by costume, but just a necessary sacrifice, still well-handled.

NS: It’s actually interesting because now that we’ve talked so much about the story and direction and all that, it feels like the design kind of faded into the background a little bit. Like maybe including the costumes, even though the costumes were really quite ostentatious.

NK: It’s actually really beautiful. I have to say it was fantastic. I love the costume that Jo was wearing in the scene where she seduces Tartuffe and she’s in this black cloak (because they’ve all been praying, so all of them are in black). And then she just kind of has her back to the audience and drops her cloak. And she’s wearing the seductive—

NS: Black and red.

NK: —Black and red dress revealing her back and you know, it’s like, “Oh, I’m here to entrap him.” It just looked very beautiful and regal and opulent, which I think was very nice to see. It just felt nice to see the Wild Rice stage full after such a long time. I mean, not only was the stage full, but the seats were full. So it was just very nice, I think it’s something Ivan mentioned at the end in the curtain call as well, this was the first show in two years that has played to a packed audience. So it was just nice to have that fullness and colour.

ML: Actually what you said about that scene where Elmire entraps Tartuffe reminded me of my favourite bit of the entire play, a real stroke of genius from Joel. In the original, the wife Elmire is putting on a show of seducing Tartuffe. Her husband is hiding under the table (because French farce). And she wants this to go on as short a time as possible: she does not want to be molested by this slimy creep. And what’s funny about it and effective about it is that her husband kind of forgets to come out from under the table. And so she’s forced to put up with it and it gets very uncomfortable and absolutely hilarious. It’s one of the funniest scenes in classic theatre.

But Joel turned that on its head in a way that really suited the intentions of his production, in that now, she is done with her husband, and she wants to humiliate him and make him suffer. So he keeps trying to come out, and she shoves him back under, so that she can show what an idiot he’s being, how obvious it is that Tartuffe is a lascivious creep, and to really underline the point that she’s never going to have anything to do with her husband again.

Just such a beautiful formal inversion which accomplishes something that is on the surface the opposite of the original. But on the other hand is in keeping with its main themes, and really pins it to modernity. Wonderful stuff, really well written.

NS: Could it also be a direction thing, besides being a writing thing?

ML: I mean, I wasn’t a huge fan of the blocking there. I think it was more in the writing personally.

NK: There were lots of strokes of genius, I think in terms of—I mean, I enjoyed the word play a lot. In fact, more than the sex gags, the word play was actually very amusing to me. So I would have just liked to just let them run along with that a little bit more, and maybe be less kind of panto-like in your face. But I mean, I can see again why they wanted to do that and just kind of portray this extreme debauchery as well.

NS: Yeah. I think overall, it just feels like, you know—because it’s a return to form, a kind of return to the stage—it feels like they were trying to do a lot of things and I actually don’t fault them for it in a sense. You know, the audience was enthralled, like, roaring with laughter.

NK: I have to say, like we are three critics trying to pick this whole show to bits. And that’s just because I think at the end of the day, we all really liked it. I think it was an absolute hoot to be in the theatre. Great to see so many good performances and everything came together very well.

And I think just hats off to Wild Rice for pulling this together because I should say that this show had been postponed because of unfortunately cast members being down with COVID and things like that. It was just very unfortunate because I had my tickets postponed twice before I got to watch the show.

NS: Right.

NK: So it was just so nice to finally see it on stage and everyone together and enjoying being in a packed audience. So hats off to the team.

NS: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. Wigs off as well. Matt, your wig, take it off. [Laughs.]

ML: [Laughs.] I’m the only one here who needs one, right?

NS: Yeah. So with that, thank you so much for listening, and we’ll catch you in our next episode.

ML: Bye bye.

NK: Thank you. Bye.

NS: Bye.


Tartuffe: The Imposter by Wild Rice ran from 7 April – 1 May 2022 at Wild Rice Theatre.

ArtsEquator’s theatre podcasts are on Spotify and SoundCloud.

About the author(s)

Naeem is an arts reviewer and commentator who has been writing critically about performance in Singapore since 2011. He runs a dedicated theatre blog, Crystalwords (crystalwords.blogspot.com), has contributed theatre reviews to publications such as arts journal The Flying Inkpot and Singapore newspaper TODAY and participated in workshops and panel discussions for organisations like Centre 42. He currently sits on the Board of Directors of Arts Equator and co-hosts the theatre podcast for the site.

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

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