Here’s a recipe for an innovative night at the theatre: first take your Molière, one of the all-time comic geniuses. He knew precisely how to structure a comedy, create larger than life but recognisable characters and put them into a ghastly but hilarious situation where they have to sink or swim. Then take two modern masters of comedy, the writers Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto, responsible for such landmark TV programmes like Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at Number 42, not to mention Citizen Khan (I won’t mention Citizen Khan because it’s awful). Blend delicately and what do you get? A Tartuffe for the 21st century, set within a British Pakistani Muslim family in Birmingham. The big question is, does that soufflé rise to the occasion of translating 17th century lampooning of religious hypocrisy successfully to the here and now?
Mon Dieu, you cannot believe how beautifully the one fits into the other! Molière’s Tartuffe (a sufficiently piercing satire to warrant the King censoring it) is a religious directeur de conscience; a kind of domestic guru who wangles his way into a well-to-do family, and convinces the Master of the Household, Orgon, that his are the words of the angels, on a direct line from God. Therefore he must be obeyed, even if that means turning a blind eye to his having it away with the lady of the household, marrying their unwilling daughter and virtually stealing the house and business from under their nose. Observing and commenting on the madness is Dorine, the maid who is the confidante of all and sundry and is more intelligent than the rest of them put together. Only when the unwitting idiot of a Master finally gets the ocular proof that his noble houseguest is a roué and a vagabond does he finally tumble to his own vain stupidity. But Tartuffe has something else up his sleeve, and tries to get Orgon arrested for possession of incriminating letters.
Messrs Gupta and Pinto have transported Orgon and his family to Small Heath, where they have become the Pervaiz family; he a wealthy businessman, on to his glamorous second wife Amira, living with his vacuous son Damee, progressively-educated daughter Mariam and his old mother Dadimaa (who is straight out of The Kumars – Meera Syal should sue). Imran Pervaiz has been transfixed by one Tahir Taufiq Arsuf (Tartuffe), whom he has brought into his house, given him as much food and drink as he wants, allowed him take control of the fabulous Home Cinema system and has become thoroughly brainwashed by his charisma. He insists that Tartuffe marries Mariam despite her already being engaged to the drippy but well-meaning Waqaas; in a misplaced religious fervour he liberates his own mind and spirit by giving all his worldly possessions to Tartuffe so that he can use it for charitable purposes (err, I don’t think so.) When Pervaiz is eventually satisfied that Tartuffe is a sham, he too realises that an incriminating document is no longer where it should be… but has Tartuffe stolen it for blackmail purposes?
Cliché time, but Molière’s timeless creation fits into this modern setting like a hand in a glove. The idea of a charismatic zealot, whether it be religious or political, a true celebrity who takes the usual brain settings of an otherwise sensible person, and puts them through the wash, is as relevant today as it was in the 17th century. Trump, Putin, Kim on the international stage; Farage, Rees-Mogg, Corbyn on the domestic. Plus ça change, as they say. It’s no surprise that at one stage Pervaiz puts his head in his hands and wishes he hadn’t voted Leave.
Gupta and Pinto litter the script with countless modern references which both delight and illuminate. During two-and-a-half hours, they cover (in no particular order) female emancipation, familial tensions between generations, politics, Windrush, marital trust, faith, sexual harassment, illegal immigration, Brexit, religious hypocrisy, Islamist fundamentalism, and much more. It’s never offensive, and, certainly, it never pokes fun at Islam; its target is simply the relationship between the manipulative trickster and the idiot who believes him. Never has the phrase “a fool and his money are soon parted” been more appropriate.
This adaptation gets its point across by using terrifically humorous characters and a sparky, al dente text. There are a few passages where, in more than a nod to its original writer, the speech diverts into rhyming alexandrine couplets; there’s even a passing reference to Shakespeare and some other contemporary garçon (and I think we know who that is.) I liked the very clever use of accents to help create the characters; the Brummie voices of Damee, Khalil and Usman all help to suggest that they’re (sorry to say it, Midlanders) a bit thick; whereas Mariam’s Brummie accent strangely makes her sound more intelligent – but then she is always talking about protecting the interests of women in the sub-Saharan continent and complaining about heteronormative patriarchy.
Bretta Gerecke’s design is a nice contrast between the plush surroundings of the Pervaiz family home and stark modernistic lighting tubes that fall into place to demarcate the indoors from outdoors. Iqbal Khan’s production brings in quite a few musical moments, some of which work better than others. Raj Bajaj’s Damee clearly sees himself as some kind of rap star and he is given a couple of chances to show off his style; even more proficient is the excellent (if you like that sort of thing) beatboxing from Riad Richie as Tartuffe’s assistant, Usman. The play begins with a very loud onslaught of musical mush coming through the headphones of Darina, the Bosnian cleaner; Black Sabbath, she confides in the audience, she’s a fan. Not entirely sure I am; it’s a bit of a brutal start. Sarah Sayeed’s traditional Punjabi music has been composed to reflect particular characters in particular moods; although these leitmotifs may work on paper, I found much of the incidental music throughout the play really distracting, and frequently too loud so that it drowns out the dialogue, which is exasperating as you know you’re missing out on gems but you just can’t hear them.
Molière knows to keep his audience waiting and it’s a full fifty minutes before we meet our eponymous anti-hero. Asif Khan (who was superb in the Royal and Derngate’s A Passage to India last January) gives us a very larger-than-life portrayal of a man appearing to be conservative and clean but in fact a mere conman. He’s dressed in the most formal Muslim clerical clothing: traditional beard as low as you dare, and a pure white abaya robe to reflect the purity of his heart (as he would like you to think). He adopts a very lilting tone of speech, as though he were part speaking, part intoning the Qu’ran. This makes him sound like a truly holy man; which only makes the sham feel worse when you see how he’s manipulating everyone around him.
The whole cast put in tremendous performances. Simon Nagra is great as Imran Pervaiz; there’s an element of Omid Djalili in his delivery, but it’s none the worse for that. His wonderment at Tartuffe’s general gloriousness is a delightfully comic turn, and it makes a painful contrast with his fury at his family’s determination to cross him, insisting his daughter marry the wretch and banishing his son from the family home. Sasha Behar makes for a glamorous and fiery Amira, well able to take care of herself, and she brings out all the comic potential from the scene where she’s trying to trap Tartuffe so that her husband can see the deceit for himself. Raj Bajaj is excellent as the well-intentioned but essentially useless son Damee, either grinning inanely at life or trying to solve problems by fisticuffs; and Zainab Hasan is superb as daughter Mariam, proudly independent but fully knowing that she should obey her father, even though he is condemning her to a life of misery.
Among the supporting cast there are some great performances from James Clyde, as family friend Khalil, wont to pontificate ad nauseam much to everyone’s exhaustion, and from Salman Akhtar as the hapless Waqaas, firing up with anger at the prospect of losing his Mariam but essentially unable to fight his way out of a paper bag. And the whole show is held together by a star performance from Michelle Bonnard as Darina, keeping up lengthy conversations with the audience (even hoovering under their seats after the interval), taking the mickey out of her employer’s bromance, seeing right through Tartuffe’s pretence, and generally getting away with murder – but also looking after their interests, as is seen in the very last second of the play.
An immensely refreshing night out at the theatre – and you’re in awe of how neatly Molière’s original fits so neatly into the totally different environment. Hats off to everyone involved for a tremendous achievement. Tartuffe remains in rep at the Swan Theatre until 23rd February. Don’t miss it!
Production photos by Topher McGrillis