The Abbey Theatre's Artistic Director Caitríona McLoughlin introduces the Abbey's forthcoming adaptation of Molière’s exuberant comedy Tartuffe, which she directs from a script by Frank McGuinness, and talks breathing new life into this opulent Irish retelling of this classic tale.

In addition to capturing the zeitgeist, great artists also have the gift of clairvoyance: they write the future.

Great comic writers go one step further: they encode the DNA of their own anarchic laughter into our present, a present that would be unrecognisable to them apart from a few salient details - the persistence of hypocrisy as a tool for social advancement, for example, and of saying one thing and meaning another.

This play is also about power, the power of money, of sex, and of patriarchal control and how they can be manipulated into new and disguised forms. Who could be a more apt avatar of our post-factual conspiracy-theorised 21st Century world than the figure of Tartuffe, who through pious pronouncements and imposed restrictions shames Orgon’s household into a confused chaos of accusation and counteraccusation, thereby enabling a smokescreen behind which he can pilfer and philander with impunity? What fits the comic anarchy of our age better than the tart, acerbic genius of Moliere?

Director Caitriona McLaughlin (back row, 4th from left) with the cast of Tartuffe
(Pic: Ste Murray)

Moliere probably didn’t know he was inadvertently writing about 21st century Ireland, but Frank McGuinness certainly did. Frank has channelled the comic spirit, alacrity, bite, and gameplay of Tartuffe with a forensic precision and directness, underscored with a lash of his Ulster tongue and held within the controlled strictures of rhyming couplets. There’s something surprisingly satisfying in the complexity and nuance both Moliere and Mc Guinness achieve with a pair of lines that rhyme - an object lesson in compression and precision for all who express themselves within the 240 characters of your average tweet.

The best plays show us what it means to be human, and the comic playwrights who endure are those who reveal ourselves to ourselves through the laughter of recognition, which disarms us.

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 governmental 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. Between two heartbeats, our pop stars, authors, and sultans of reality TV are swiftly deposed when a wrong-footed tweet or online video detonates across the socials. In seconds, and with dizzying velocity, reputations are shredded.

In Tartuffe, Moliere slows this process down for us, and we see this mechanism laid bare.

Designer Katie Davenport's sketch for a Tartuffe costume

A lying hypocrite is unmasked by an all-seeing king and promptly cancelled. He had been cancelled before by his own tribe, when he lost his aristocratic entitlement, and has now reinvented himself as a destitute and abject saint. His previous wealth and entitlement privileged him with political and cultural currency, but he has now - with a Bowie like transformation - created another form of currency amongst his liberal-minded converts: the currency of shame. Shame, still profoundly Irish, is a powerful emotion that can fundamentally alter a person because it is projected outwards, unlike guilt, which turns the gaze inside. If used on the susceptible, as Tartuffe does with Orgon, it dissembles. But Tartuffe is then cancelled a second time, by a higher authority than his aristocratic tribe, the King. Thus, fortunes are lost, lives are ruined, and 'truths slaved’.

Tartuffe: Director Caitriona McLoughlin with playwright Frank McGuinness
(Pic: Jack O Dea)

Within this tight compass of imaginative folly, Moliere creates a comic universe that delights and surprises. The delight comes not because previously hidden and unknown parts of human endeavour are revealed to the audience, but rather in how Moliere reveals it, and how he contains and corrals the action - his sheer kinetic virtuosity - which Frank here has renewed and freshly minted. The surprise is that the trick is still possible. The best plays show us what it means to be human, and the comic playwrights who endure are those who reveal ourselves to ourselves through the laughter of recognition, which disarms us. They tell us things that are essentially unfunny because they are a serious matter but make us laugh at the sheer chutzpah of it, the desperation of it, the mess of it. If Moliere holds up a mirror to nature, then it is a mirror in a cheap hotel room. The furnishings might look fancy, but deep down we know it’s all a trick of the light. We catch a glimpse of our reflection out of the corner of our eye; we don’t like it, but we smile in recognition. We know it looks like us before the Instagram filters.

Tartuffe premieres at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin on March 9 (with previews from March 3rd - 9th) and runs until April 8th, before making a 5-stop national tour from April 12th – May 13th 2023 - find out more here.