The cleverness of Moliere's Tartuffe, currently on show at the National and starring Martin Clunes in the title role, resides in its language and superb cast.
This controversial play once banned from public performance by Louis XIV of France and castigated by the church has been updated in a new translation by Ranjit Bolt.
Dealing with deception and self-deception the story charts how the merchant Orgon through his own credulous susceptibility endangers his household and family by allowing himself to be beguiled by Tartuffe, a religious hypocrite whom he rescues from the street.
The depiction of virtue or evil through the medium of acting is sometimes easy to see but to convey hypocrisy is difficult. Tartuffe is an interesting character and conflicting reports as to his conduct is given ranging from a "beacon for our age" to "a lecherous puffed up ape." Tartuffe in lecherous mode says of himself "I'm pious but still a man." As the tale progresses his true nature is revealed.
Clunes excels in this role and his supporting actors Orgon (David Threlfall), Dorine (Debra Gillett) and Elmire (Clare Holman) give equally strong performances. Fresh, funny and breath-taking dialogue re-grafted to 21st century British humour creates theatre that is supremely enjoyable. The aspects of religious charlatanism and piety though central to the narrative are easy to dismiss because of the abundance and pervasive wit delivered in rhyming couplets. Tartuffe is an astounding feat of great comedy.