Photography credits to Agata Gwincinska

A few Saturday mornings ago, I sat down with Flora Davies and Siân Lawrence to discuss their coming production of Tartuffe at the Burton Taylor Studio the following week. A firm lover of all things Molière and determined to finally properly engage with the elusive Oxford drama scene, I had bought tickets to watch the production on Thursday, essays and deadlines be damned. Post-interview, my excitement to watch a third production of Tartuffe had reached fever pitch.

With the an almost identical cast of characters as Molière’s 1664 original, Davies and Lawrence transposed the plot to the 21st century, changing Tartuffe from a pretend perfect Christian, to a pretend perfect feminist. We follow the goings-on of a family-run company, with Orgon (Rhys Surtees) and Elmire (Caitlyn O’Sullivan) at its helm. Mariane, their daughter, (Gillian Konko) runs the social media side, Damis (Bridget Harrington) is an employee of the company, while Dorine (Olivia Winnifrith) is an intern. All but Orgon find themselves suffering as a result of new employee, Tartuffe’s (Jonathan Honnor) manipulation and scheming to take over the company and cause its ruin. Not in the least affected are Mariane, whose engagement to girlfriend Valère (Imogen Lewis) is threatened by her father’s decision to marry her off to Tartuffe, and Elmire, who finds herself the unwanted object of Tartuffe’s sexual fantasies and advances.

Whether it’s thanks to comical lines like ‘fuck Boohoo, go Ebay’, references, to the intrinsic importance of Pret coffees, Mariane’s very à-la-Blair-Waldorf costume, or Tartuffe’s painfully misguided and cring-ful poem about the clitoris, for me this play had all the trappings of a Tartuffe adaptation made by our generation for our generation. And as soon as you add feminist discourse or gender politics in, that’s already a win in my book.

Usually, I’m wary of feminist adaptations of works, because I think so often in our post Me Too era, it’s something that it done quite a lot and often executed poorly; in other words, it can seem a bit like token feminism. A feminist rebrand can seem like a sure-fire way to guarantee a lot of buzz in the run-up to a project’s release because it is something that we are constantly talking about nowadays. The only downfall is that if it’s not done well, it can seem forced, or like it’s compromising the integrity of the original from which it is adapted.

This production of Tartuffe was nothing of the sort. Watching it felt like the most natural thing ever, like it was always supposed to be transformed in the way Davies and Lawrence did. This is partly thanks to Molière himself, who wrote in the sexist actions and phrases that Tartuffe would say, or Orgon’s own disbelief at his wife’s testimony that she has been assaulted. Yet a substantial amount of credit is due to the co-writers and co-directors themselves.

When approaching the works of a playwright as well-known as Molière, especially given his prominence in French literature syllabi in universities across the world, there is the danger of coming at the adaptation process through a much too academic lens.

Something about Davies and Lawrence’s process of translating and adapting the script stood out to me during our interview:

‘We had a lot of meetings where we were just discussing ideas… A lot of it didn’t come from the academic side, but rather from general conversations we’d had. We’d spoken about how we’d met these guys, and joking about the fact that a lot of the guys we met who were the most misogynistic were also the ones portraying themselves as being the most feminist. And we found that kind of disturbing, but also really fascinating. Because why is it that [feminism] has become this label that you can use to cover up really awful behaviour with? Has the label lost all meaning?’

I think this approach was really reflected in the play. By discussing these themes, the resulting play ended up portraying the universality of the female experience, guided by the framework of Molière’s original. Some of Tartuffe’s most shocking or offensive lines were drawn from real life, with the co-directors sharing how they were inspired by their own and their friends’ experiences to inform his words. And it succeeded; I know I saw myself and some of the awful conversations I’d had with self-professed feminist guys several times in the play’s dialogue. 

With such a strong basis, adding in little things, like ironic references to 17th century society as a subtle nod to Molière’s time period, or Dorine’s reading of Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of the Intellectual Woman by Toril Moi, only added to the overall atmosphere. The cast had great chemistry with each other, with standout performances by Jonathan Honnor, Olivia Winnifrith, and Caitlin O’Sullivan; the lighting and tech were flawless.

Tartuffe holding a book called Feminist Literary Theory but upside down seemed like to me the best possible exemplification of what his character represented. Yes, he is, as Flora said ‘more of an archetype than a person’ and I think in such a satirical play, the compatibility of any character with people as they function in real life would be reductive. This play is supposed to provoke thought and discussion, and some of the best ways to do that – as Moliere did in 1664 and as Flora and Siân have done now – is to use a cast of extremes, to forego subtleties of character in the interest of shocking the audience. There were several audible gasps and reactions during the course of the play, and a shocking amount of them were partly, if not entirely, thanks to yours truly. When faced with such blatant audacity as Tartuffe’s, you can’t help but engender conversation and reflection around it afterwards. Within the comedy and the satire was a serious reflection on what it means to be a feminist. 

And as a woman, that was what stuck out the most: the myriad of ways that the play deals with the plurality of feminism. In this day and age, where there is constant discourse around so many different topics, it can be easy to feel a bit lost. I know that in my case, I considered myself a bad feminist at times when I felt like my own engagement with feminist issues didn’t mirror the kind that I saw portrayed in the media, or the image of feminism that was being pedalled around. It took me years to realise and accept that to think of feminism as a firmly-defined belief is not only extremely narrow-minded and reductive, but also the most harmful way to consider feminism. 

At its very core, feminism is about affording women choice – whether it’s to do with our bodies, our right to vote, our right to work, our salaries, our right to dress how we want – all in the interest of breaking free of the restrictions that have, for so long and in so many different guises, been imposed upon us. Having a singular understanding or perception of feminism is perhaps the least feminist thing you can do, because you are forcing women to all behave in a single way that is deemed fit… Which is exactly what Siân raised during our interview:

‘There isn’t a singular belief system to feminism; the only person who has one prescriptive belief about feminism as a rigid structure is Tartuffe.’

And it shows. When he places himself centre stage, holding this book on feminist theory upside down, I found it such a genius way to understanding his character because his posture is so absurdly and so obviously a pretence. When certain people have misunderstood the core values or aims of feminism, and then use the term as a way of imposing restrictions, that is Tartuffe; the self-professed ideal feminist, who has misunderstood what it truly is to be a feminist so much that he is reading the “manual” on it upside down, he has perverted and disfigured its reasoning.

Was this an intentional direction on the parts of Flora and Siân? Was it meant to be so subtle that our eyes would take it in and it would subconsciously inform our opinions of Tartuffe? Was it a genuine and chance mistake that I am now, in true literature student-style, reading far too much into? It could be any of the above. But after watching this production of Tartuffe and speaking with the directors, what was made abundantly clear was that absolutely nothing was left to chance: every word, every action, every prop, every breath had a real intention that made the play so pointed and so believable in its discourse of feminism.

Looking beyond ticket sales (the production sold out for every date it was playing at the Burton-Taylor studio), I would call this play a resounding success. I won’t sugar coat everything: in the first couple of minutes I was a bit confused as to which direction the play would go in, and I felt inner cynic rising to the surface. But once the ball got rolling and the opening-line-jitters were overcome, not only was that cynic firmly tamed and vanquished, but I was so taken in by the cast’s mesmerising acting, the natural-sounding script, and the whole production team that the next 90 minutes were the fastest of my life. I have never in such a short space of time been so strongly overcome by such a range of intense emotions while watching a play. I have never had literal chills take over my body as they did during the strobe-lit scene of Tartuffe’s condamnation, except when listening to Celine Dion belt her high notes.

I left the Burton Taylor Studio not only wanting more from the cast and the directors, but in true awe. Remember, you read it here first: there should be a Fringe in this production’s future.