In 1664, when Moliere’s Tartuffe was first performed, religion was dangerous. European Christians were split between Catholic and Protestant faiths and several religious wars were waged. This was the time of the Catholic Spanish Inquisition, where Protestants were persecuted because of their beliefs. In England, the monarchy switched back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism, resulting in religious turmoil. Similarly in today’s society, Islam is seen by some as being a dangerous religion. Prejudice and ignorance clouds people’s understanding of Islam, with many Westerners often believing that Muslim extremists represent the religion. This is not true. By adapting Moliere’s play to tell the story of contemporary Pakistani Muslims, writers Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto aim to remove Westernised prejudice towards Islam. Moliere’s Tartuffe satirises people who use religion to pursue their own means. The RSC’s radical adaptation of Tartuffe accurately presents the real Islamic religion, by mocking those who exploit it. This production makes Islam, and Moliere’s story, accessible to modern audiences.
This new version of Tartuffe keeps the essential storyline of Moliere’s play, but drags it into the 21st Century. It updates the dialogue and revises the narrative to suit a contemporary context, depicting a Pakistani Muslim family from Birmingham. Tartuffe is a con man who dupes the family’s father, Imran, into believing he is a pious, religious martyr. He playfully convinces Imran that in order to become a devout Muslim, he must follow Tartuffe’s instructions to achieve righteousness. Tartuffe charms his way into a position of trust with Imran, yet the rest of Imran’s family can see Tartuffe’s true colours, knowing he is a fraud. Tartuffe is an incredibly clever, brilliantly written, radical revival of a classic work which remains truly funny and makes an unfamiliar story which is 350 years old feel approachable, relevant, and familiar to a contemporary society.
As with any religious satire, some people may see the RSC’s Tartuffe as being controversial. It deals with uncomfortable issues such as the patriarchal order of the family, arranged marriages and questions men’s treatment of women. It also questions religious beliefs and different interpretations of the Quran. However, it is worth noting that Moliere’s original play was also controversial for satirising Christianity. It ended up being banned in France by King Louis XIV. It is a testament to Tartuffe’s incredibly talented writers that this play never crosses the line of being too controversial. Writers, Gupta and Pinto have written several incredibly successful television shows, such as Citizen Khan and The Kumars at No. 42. It becomes immediately evident that they are capable of handling the delicate subject of religious satire. They not only present an accurate depiction of Pakistani Muslims, but a realistic portrayal of British family values and the Brummie way of life. In the hands of these talented writers, the Pervais family are wonderfully believable characters, especially the grandmother (Dadimaa), who remains my favourite character, despite her fleeting time on stage. Comedy oozes through these characters and Tartuffe becomes a very funny, thoroughly enjoyable play. With Brexit jokes, mentions of the Hostile Environment and the war in Syria, Tartufffe remains strikingly relevant, centuries after the original was written.
The use of contemporary modes of communication during Tartuffe is a stroke of genius. Much of the poetic dialogue from Moliere’s version of the play is brilliantly adapted into rap songs. This reflects the contemporary setting of the story perfectly. Beautifully executed, particularly by Raj Bajaj, the rap battles drag Moliere’s Tartuffe kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. Bajaj is an accomplished rapper and actor, and this medium of performance suits his teenage, hyperactive character perfectly. In addition to rapping, Tartuffe uses Twitter to spread his prophet-like status, creating the hashtag #ComeDeenWithMe. The superb lighting design also mirrors the modern setting of the play, with halogen lights being used to create the doors and the roof of the house. Matched with a thoroughly modern musical score, which ranges from rap and heavy metal to more traditional instrumental sitar music. These elements all work in collaboration with the brilliantly written narrative to present a contemporary, approachable and relatable play.
Asif Khan is splendid as Tartuffe. He is wonderfully duplicitous and seductive, beautifully rolling his ‘r’s and stressing the final consonant of his lines, perfectly annunciating his dialogue, and giving Tartuffe a touch of elegance. Khan plays the dual role of the charming chameleon superbly. He is utterly charming as Tartuffe, but also reveals his true nature to the audience. It is an incredibly accomplished performance, with brilliant mannerisms that suit the character perfectly, such as constantly stroking his luxuriant beard. It is easy to see how the Pervaiz family can be seduced by Tartuffe’s character as Khan subtly seduces the audience. Khan’s Tartuffe wraps the audience around his finger as smoothly as he speaks his dialogue. By gaining eye contact with the audience during his speeches and occasionally breaking the fourth wall, Tartuffe remains a character that the audience can identify with. Even when his true colours are revealed, he remains a likeable character. Khan deserves full credit for bringing such a brilliant character to life. He delivers a truly remarkable performance.
The rest of the cast are also strong actors. Simon Nagra gives a superb performance as the patriarchal father, Imran, who manages to be remain sympathetic character, despite flying into fits of rage and making shocking rash decisions. Sasha Behar is fantastic as the step-mother, Amira, who is the anchor of the family, and nails the funniest scene of the play. However, it is Michelle Bonnard’s Bosnian cleaner who tells the play’s narrative. Interacting with the audience by breaking the fourth wall, Bonnard fully utilises the thrust stage of the RSC’s Swan Theatre, completely owning the space. It is through her character that we are drawn into an ‘insider’s view’ of the Pervaiz family. Bonnard is an excellent comic performer, perfectly timing her dialogue and playing to the audience’s reactions. She instantly grabs your attention with her heavy-metal cleaning, and closes the play with a clever moral.
Overall, I really enjoyed Tartuffe. It is a genius adaptation of an unfamiliar play which feels familiar and incredibly relevant. Brilliantly written, with stellar performances from the entire cast, this contemporary spin on religious satire is very funny, intelligent comedy. Plus, it has one of the best lines I have ever heard in a play. I recommend anybody that is visiting Stratford to watch this. Compared to the blood-soaked tragedies that are currently on the RSC’s 2018 season, this will be a breath of fresh air!
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Photo Credits = Topher McGrillis