In Focus: The wonder of the theatre directors finding new ways to fuse modern life into classic plays

Our theatre critic Michael Billington applauds the efforts made to freshen up Tartuffe and Equus in ways which bring new meaning and relevance to even the most familiar pieces.

Molière’s great comedy Tartuffe is an obliging play that can be adapted to multiple settings. At the first night of the enjoyable new production at the Lyttelton, SE1, I bumped into Jatinder Verma, who, in 1990, staged a version for the National Theatre set in Mogul India. Last year, the RSC hilariously transposed the action to Birmingham’s British Pakistani community and, in John Donnelly’s update, we’re in a posh town house in Highgate – clearly, Molière’s satire on religious hypocrisy can take place anywhere at any time.

The striking feature here is that the focus is on bourgeois guilt. Orgon, who invites the disruptive Tartuffe into his home, is played as a panic-stricken figure, who fears exposure over criminal insider dealing.

Having discovered Tartuffe, a New Age hippie, in some wayside hovel, he treats him as his confidant and confessor. Everyone, except Orgon and his mother, sees that Tartuffe is a greedy, lecherous rogue. Only in the great scene in which a hidden Orgon sees his wife being seduced by Tartuffe does the deluded host come to his senses.

I have one major reservation with this premise: the social detail is never as precise as it was in the RSC version, in which Orgon became a parvenu patriarch under the spell of a fake imam. Here, Orgon is a pillar of the establishment, who served in ‘the last rather ill-advised war’ and made a fortune ‘during the recent upheavals’, but which war and what upheavals?

What is clear is that Orgon symbolises a world of wealthy profiteering and that he feels the need to do penance to a street shaman in the tatty shape of Tartuffe.

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Tartuffe by Molière. (Picture: Manuel Harlan)

Tartuffe by Molière. (Picture: Manuel Harlan)

Even if the background is a bit sketchy, Blanche McIntyre’s production has bounce. With his oriental topknot, weird accent and wild band of acolytes, Denis O’Hare makes Tartuffe a wholly plausible figure: less a religious sham than a ferrety survivor who takes on whatever role people wish him to. As he crushingly tells Orgon: ‘I’m not the hypocrite – I never pretended to be anything I’m not.’

Kevin Doyle’s distraught, devious Orgon becomes the real villain of the piece, in that he’s prepared to sacrifice his family to get himself out of a scrape. There’s vivid support from Olivia Williams as his mistreated wife, Kitty Archer as his petulant daughter and Susan Engel as his monumental mother.

This isn’t a definitive Tartuffe, but one that intriguingly suggests the real vice of our age is not spiritual fakery, but financial malpractice.

One sign of a first-rate play, however, is that it’s open to reinterpretation. As if to prove the point, along comes a brilliant revival of Sir Peter Shaffer’s Equus, jointly presented by the Theatre Royal, Stratford East and English Touring Theatre.

Having seen John Dexter’s original 1973 production and several revivals, I thought I had the measure of the piece: a psychological thriller in which a desiccated shrink, Martin Dysart, seeks to get to the truth of a horrific incident in which a teenage boy, Alan Strang, has wantonly blinded six horses.

That’s still the story, but, without violating the text, the  director, the highly promising Ned Bennett, has given it a different emphasis.

The action hinges on Alan’s fixation with one single horse, which, in his confused mind, becomes a mix of the earthly and the divine. As we see Ethan Kai’s Alan nuzzling the neck of muscular Ira Mandela Siobhan as his adored horse, it becomes clear that equine obsession is a metaphor for same-sex love.

Ned Bennett's Equus. (Picture: ©The Other Richard)

Ned Bennett’s Equus.
(Picture: ©The Other Richard)

Shaffer always said this was an erotic play and, with the aid of movement director Shelley Maxwell and the visualisation of the horses as near-naked figures in grey shorts, the nature of that eroticism becomes clear.

Equally startling is the idea that Dysart himself is just as disturbed as the boy. As played by Zubin Varla, compulsively smoking and full of nervous twitches, he doesn’t merely envy Alan’s capacity for worship, he becomes a guilt-ridden figure on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

This is, however, an ensemble production rather than a star vehicle and Ruth Lass, Syreeta Kumar and Norah Lopez Holden are a vital part of an impressive cast who double as human beings and horses.

‘Tartuffe’ runs until April 30 –

‘Equus’ runs until March 23 and goes on tour until May 11 –

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