Tartuffe, Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, until February 23, 2019
This clever and very entertaining update on the Molière classic is written by BAFTA and Emmy-Award winners Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto.
They have given the plot a makeover and set the proceedings in a modern day Pakistani home in Birmingham. Their writing pedigree includes The Office, Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars so they are experienced enough to create, the dialogue and the cultural nuances of an Asian household.
Their stylish humour and gift for punchlines are extremely well showcased here.
Molière's original play gave modern French and English the word 'tartuffe' to signify a hypocrite who feigns virtue, especially religious virtue in an exaggerated way. It was first performed for Louis XIV of France in 1664, and though favourably received at first, the play was banned from public performance due to the strong objections of influential church leaders.
The original idea for this transposition to the Muslim world was from Greg Doran, the RSC’s Artistic Director, and the company has bravely ventured into similar controversial territory but with a different religion.
Music is an essential ingredient and the audience is assaulted with sound and light; initially and surprisingly from Black Sabbath then to traditional Punjabi music fused with grime, hip hop and beatbox but suffused with live Dhol drum.
The action begins with a tour de force entrance from Grandma Pervaiz (played by Amina Zia) on her Rollator walker. The stage is framed by neon tubes which flash to the music and compose themselves to create the interior and exterior house contours, as well as illuminating picture frames on the balcony.
Darina, the Bosnian cleaner (wonderfully played by Michelle Bonnard) serves as a Tom the Cabin Boy to the Pugwash household, with knowing and hilarious asides to the audience and wise advice to the family. ”We have a saying in Bosnia; when people are promising much, bring a small bag”.
Asif Khan is excellent as the oleaginous Tartuffe, changing tone with chameleon ease to suit his plans. He sports a Bin Laden beard with skinny jeans. Raj Bajaj as Damee is a comic also, flexing from dutiful Asian son to deliver rap lines and street dance moves. Simon Nagra, as the father and flawed business man Imran, manages to elicit sympathy despite initially being a rather bombastic figure.
Whilst sticking loosely to Moliere’s original plot, Gupta and Pinto did change the ending, justifiably as it had originally been imposed on the author by the King and church of the time. They have brought the drama right up to date and managed to give the women in their play strong contemporary voices and they don’t duck the big issues. Wife Amira has her 'MeToo' moment persuading her husband of Tartuffe’s molestation, and the daughter Mariam (Zainab Hasan) denounces the “heteronormative patriarchy” of their situation referring to the attempt to arrange her marriage. The authors also manage to explore Brexit, Windrush, illegal imigration and deportation as well as terrorism without missing a beat in the pace of the humour.
As always the RSC are to be congratulated on their production, capturing the zeitgeist of the
“strange times we live in” whilst delivering a thoroughly enjoyable and hilarious evening’s
Pictures by Topher McGrillis