There are surely more subversive, not to mention seditious, “Tartuffes” to be found, but it’s hard to imagine a more purely entertaining treatment of Moliere’s raging 17th-century classic than the new National Theater production that restores TV actor Martin Clunes paunchily and well nigh perfectly to the stage.
Clunes has become a household name in Britain on the strength of laddish sitcom “Men Behaving Badly,” though it’s only when you see him in the flesh — and what a lot of it he has! — that you wonder how the small screen has managed to rein in such a big talent. Moliere, of course, delays Tartuffe’s entrance until well into the first half, intensifying expectations while requiring the actor in the role muscle his way into the action at once. Clunes meets that challenge and then some, supported by a trio of notable women, and if this isn’t the most textually penetrating “Tartuffe,” well, auds will have little trouble settling for some fun.
These days, it’s almost a braver gesture to do the play straight, if that’s the right word to apply to a translation from Ranjit Bolt (used in an earlier version by Peter Hall) rife with references to “balls” and “tits” and exclamations like “bugger me sideways.” (Worry not: This being England, there’s even the obligatory fart joke — though “If he broke wind, he’d bottle it” is of a somewhat more elevated order than is the norm.) Director Lindsay Posner squares up to its 17th-century setting, notwithstanding a neon-flecked Ashley Martin-Davis set.
The treatment, meanwhile, is what everyone in “Tartuffe” is busy giving everyone else, starting with Margaret Tyzack, in terrifically imperious form as Mme. Pernelle, mother to the duped Orgon (David Threlfall). Sweeping the stage in floor-length black, her eyes scalding all who brave her gaze, Tyzack makes a memorable scold, “a mad old dragon” who ends up prompting wistful thoughts of matricide in her emotionally ravaged son. As a pair of skeptics occupying different rungs on the social ladder, Debra Gillett as Dorine and Clare Holman as Elmire comprise a delicious pair of conspirators, jointly hell-bent on assisting Tartuffe’s fall.
In unusually bold form, Holman — London’s most recent Honey in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — has a field day at the start of act two, heaving her bosoms into place for the assignation with Tartuffe atop a table under which her husband, Orgon, is crouched. Wiggling a lascivious foot, she gets her every laugh, as does Gillett in the plum role of the pert strategist and maid to Tartuffe’s next victim, Orgon’s innocent daughter Mariane (a bland Melanie Clark Pullen).
Away from the distaff members of the company , the news isn’t quite as good, with at least three of the supporting actors too fruity by half. But Threlfall digs beneath the japery to cut a convincing portrait of a paranoiac who risks losing wife, home and country in thrall to the “censorious fraud” that is Tartuffe. And when he is brought to account, confronted with the gaping void that is a world where trust and affection have been betrayed, the actor hints at the grief shadowing a play that Posner’s broad, bright staging for the most part is content to keep at bay.
Even Tartuffe can be heard being thrashed before he is ever seen: For all his false piety, the man is no stranger to pain. And yet, when Clunes actually emerges in all his scraggly-haired, large-bellied splendor (someday he’ll make a great Falstaff), the audience can be felt giving a collective smile, as if the sun were flooding the stage of “Tartuffe” well before the Sun King himself appears.