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21st Mar 2023

Tartuffe Review: A new modern take on Molière’s play at the Abbey Theatre

Katy Thornton

Frank McGuinness’ retelling of Molière’s Tartuffe serves the right amount of camp, debauchery, and a whole lot of style.

Last Wednesday I was kindly invited to attend a showing of Tartuffe in the Abbey Theatre, an invitation I accepted with relish given the great experience I had attending Translations last June. The theatre was heaving with people, a great sight to see following years of paused production for the industry as a whole, and as we took our seats, there was an incredible buzz in the air.

Tartuffe at The Abbey is based on Molière’s original play, but rewritten by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, and told in rhyming couplets that quickly and seamlessly engage the audience.

Why you should go? 

A night in the Abbey is always one well spent, so if you’re a complete theatre buff, Tartuffe will not disappoint. As someone who had never studied the play and knew very little about it going in, I can say this largely didn’t hinder my experience, which I can attribute to it being a retelling and not a word for word translation.

That said, if you have studied Molière’s Tartuffe, I think this Frank McGuinness retelling, as directed by Caitríona McLaughlin, can only add to your perspective on the play, as it’s ever relevant to the world we live in.

Dublin is often criticised for its lack of events that don’t revolve around drinking, and while you can certainly have one at The Abbey, this is a wonderful way of spending an evening without having a tipple if that’s not what you’re into.

Set the scene

The stage is split in two; one side presents the 17th century home of Orgon (Frank McClusker) his wife Elmire (Aislín McGuckin) and his children, with all its classic furniture, a table where each scene centres around, and doors that allow people to eavesdrop on any and all conversations.

The other side is mostly bare, save for a charging phone or laptop, and even a ring light, bringing a touch of modern social media into this otherwise classic story.

The juxtaposition of these two sides depicts the ever relevant message of the play, the very human need to reinvent ourselves, to present a false image to the world, and to hide the reality of ourselves.

The backstory

Tartuffe is a Molière play, first performed in the 17th century, that strongly echoes themes and concepts of 21st Century Ireland, so much so that playwright Frank McGuinness retells the story, bringing in elements of our current age such as selfies, TikTok dances, and songs such as “Slave 4 You” by Britney Spears assisting the transition from one scene to another.

The story revolves around the titular character, Tartuffe (Ryan Donaldson), a man who is a hypocrite and a fraud, pretending to be a pious religious man in public while being money hungry and greedy in private. He has fooled the master of the house Orgon, enough so that he’s able to weasel his way into the family, while everyone else can clearly see him for who he is.

A plan to unveil his true character is set into motion, and the events that follow are outrageous, unpredictable, and often have the viewer watching through the cracks of their fingers in shock.

The programme for the play said this of the new interpretation.

“In an age where content is king, a mantra that powers keyboard warriors across the globe, meaning can get lost in the fog of culture wars. Daily, almost on the hour, we see government hypocrisy and corporate malfeasance exposed, politicians caught flouting the very edicts they decree we should abide by, and various cultural commentariat revealed to have feet of clay.”

Tartuffe, the play, and the character, embodies this hypocrisy to a tee.

The highlight

It’s hard to settle on simply one moment as the highlight. For a play with so many moving parts, you’d be hard pressed to choose one scene or character as the stand-out. Whether it’s that the play opened to Azealia Bank’s “212”, or the servant girl, who has no lines, but acts her socks off as she is consistently battered in outlandish but hilarious accidents, the play never failed to keep us entertained during the the entire 2 hours it was on for.

That said, the seduction scene between Elmire and Tartuffe, with Orgon hiding under the table for much longer than necessary to prove Tartuffe’s hypocrisy elicited laughter for a solid ten minutes straight, the kind that makes it truly hard to breathe, so it’s certainly a contender for the highlight spot.

Accessibility

There is a sign language interpreted performance on Thursday March 30th at 7:30pm, as well as an audio description and captioned performance on Saturday April 8th at 2pm.

The Abbey has wheelchair access, as well as seating that doesn’t require steps. Those with accessibility issues cannot access the Abbey bar, which is upstairs, but staff can organise for drinks to be brought down to them, and there is a coffee bar on the ground floor.

How long is it showing for?

Tartuffe runs until the 8th April.

Where is it again?

Tartuffe is playing at The Abbey Theatre, based on Abbey Street Lower. If you miss its run in Dublin, the play is moving all over the country.
  • 12th – 15th April, The Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick
  • 18th – 22nd April, Black Box Theatre, Galway
  • 25th – 29th April, Lyric Theatre, Belfast
  • 3rd – 6th May, An Grianán Theatre, Letterkenny
  • 9th – 13th May, Cork Opera House, Cork

Prices from

Tickets start from €13 for Tartuffe at The Abbey Theatre.

Overall Thoughts

Just as Translations captivated me last summer, Tartuffe did the same. There’s something special about going into a show blind, witnessing instead of reading and studying a story, and as a result I was consistently surprised throughout.

While I have very few criticisms of the play – I can honestly say I was never bored throughout its run-time – I thought they could have leaned into the modern day elements more. While I enjoyed them, the play could have done with embracing the social media age even more if the goal was to make a comment on the age we live in, and how little has changed since Tartuffe’s first appearance on the stage.

The set and costume design deserves serious praise; it’s admittedly not something I’d normally spend a lot of time thinking about, but they truly stood out as an important facet of the show. The King’s outfit in particular was nothing short of epic – never have gold cowboy boots paired with black and white sequinned leggings been so fitting together. A huge congrats to Katie Davenport for the incredible work put in for this production.

The play somewhat lost me in the last five minutes, but in spite of this, it was amazing to be along for the ride with these characters as they navigated their way around a “cancelled” figure. Everyone on that stage acted their heart out, from Tartuffe himself, to head maid Dorine (played by the incredible Pauline Hutton) and I couldn’t fault any of their performances.

This was a truly unique depiction on an archetypal story and I highly recommend you catch it before it finishes up at The Abbey.

Header image via Instagram/abbeytheatredublin

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