Forgotten Australian TV plays: Tartuffe and The Taming of the Shrew

September 13, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays looks at two adaptations of classic plays starring Ron Haddrick, The Taming of the Shrew (1962) and Tartuffe (1965).

Ron Haddrick had one of the best careers for an Australian actor who didn’t become really famous. Never a star, he seems to have been always respected, always admired, always employed. I’m sure it wasn’t that simple – even Cate Blanchett had her time on the two-minute noodles diet – but he managed to compile a truly impressive CV over the years. He even represented South Australia in Sheffield Shield too.

Haddrick was one of the mainstays of early Australian TV drama – I’ve written about other plays he’s appeared in like The Man Who Saw It, The Sweet Sad Story of Elmo and Me, Reunion Day and The Big Killing. Today, I’m discussing his appearances in local versions of The Taming of the Shrew and Tartuffe.

Shrew would be the best known of these two plays – it’s always been among Shakespeare’s most popular works with its ethically dodgy high concept (buccaneering man must seduce spitfire heroine)and two cracker star parts. Indeed, Taming of the Shrew knock-offs are so prevalent as to form their own sub-genre (eg The Quiet Man, Ten Things I Hate About You).

The ABC filmed it in 1962 with the leads played by Haddrick and Brigid Lenihan. Lenihan was an interesting actor about whom I knew little before researching this topic (she died in 1970, aged only 41). She was a New Zealander who had worked for years in London before moving to Sydney, where she was busy in theatre and television; among her performances in early TV plays were the title role in the musical Lola Montez (1962).

Neither she or Haddrick are conventionally good looking but they have plenty of spirit and spunk. The set design is very theatrical in a toy town way, as it was in another Shakespeare adaptation from director Alan Burke, The Merchant of Venice. The cast includes Judi Farr, fun as Bianca, and Richard Meikle as Tranio. There was some location filming in Centennial Park in Sydney, with Haddrick and Lenihan cavorting among the reeds and on horseback, which is interesting.

And because it’s never too late to make a swipe at a critic, I should mention that the television reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald (who on the whole liked the production) said it was “pleasing” to find Kate “making her famous acknowledgement of male superiority without the ironic twitching of the lips”. Because you wouldn’t want that to be ironic, hey?

Tartuffe is a comedy from famous French playwright Moliere. Moliere’s other works include The Imaginary Invalid and The Miser; Tartuffe, also known as The Imposter, is one of his most popular (apparently it’s the most performed play at the Comédie-Française in France). Gerard Depardieu starred in a 1984 film version.

The plot concerns a conman, Tartuffe (Haddrick) who has convinced a wealthy idiot called Orgon (Ron Morse) that Tartuffe is a saint. Most of the action concerns the efforts of Orgona’s family to point out to Orgon how dodgy Tartuffe is, but Orgon blindly insists his friend is awesome, even arranging marriage with Orgon’s daughter Mariane (Lucia Duchenski). It’s an all too believable tale with Tartuffe having many models in real life (eg Rasputin). So many, in fact, that French King Louis XIV had the play suppressed when it originally came out.

The ABC version aired in 1965, directed (very well) by Henri Safran. The cast all play it in the right style – it also includes Jennifer Wright (as Orgon’s wife Elmire), John Gregg (Elmire’s brother Cleante) and Skippy’s own Tony Bonner (as Mariane’s boyfriend, Valere).It was based on an adaptation of the play by English writer-actor Miles Malleson; the year before the ABC had filmed his adaptation of Turgenev’s A Provincial Lady (1964).

Watching Taming of the Shrew and Tartuffe is rather like subscribing to a season at the STC – which is very ABC. As I’ve said before in other articles, I don’t think there was much point in the ABC filming these for television over Australian scripts but they are well done, Tartuffe especially.

For more articles like this, read:

60 Australian TV Plays of the 1950s & ‘60s

Annette Andre: My Brilliant Early Australian Career

Barry Creyton Live

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