In this modern reimagining, Tartuffe (Asif Khan) is a con man who swindles a Brummie-Pakistani family out of their house and savings. Assuming the piety of ‘an angel’ and eschewing material possessions as a barrier in the way of true devotion to Allah, Tartuffe is delighted to relieve the blinkered and credulous father, Imran (Simon Nagra) of ‘the trappings of capitalist society’, to take ownership of the household in which he has barely become a temporary lodger. By no means do the whole family buy into his deceit, but Nagra’s Imran demonstrates early on that Tartuffe’s charms are well-cast on him.
To be clear, Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto have not written a play that is critical of religion itself, and there is little evidence that Molière intended such from his original either. Despite arousing great controversy when it was first performed, Tartuffe enjoyed the patronage of ‘enlightened’ Louis XIV and was clear to criticise hypocrisy and charlatanism – sometimes characteristic of ‘holy men’ but, not, as is pointed out in this production, in every case.
The adaptation manages to pay due respect to the original, while remaining unmistakeably modern. Molière’s signature blend of farce and hard-hitting satire is present, along with stylish nods to the use of verse and rhyme in the form of rap-breaks. These elements serve well to advance the action and sustain audience engagement. In fact, deftly blending traditional Islamic adhan-esque chants and pulsing modern drum’n’bass, Sarah Sayeed’s accomplished soundtrack is well-deserving of the prominence it enjoys throughout the production. So too is Iqbal Khan’s direction. The action pounds along, helped by dynamic physicality and musical leitmotif. The deep thrust of the Swan Theatre is also utilised to great effect, and the action practically unfolds in the audience members’ laps.
The cast perform with style and passion, but special notice should be paid to Michelle Bonnard as Darina, the Bob-Dylan-quoting Bosnian cleaner who devotes herself to lifting Tartuffe’s spell on Imran. Bravely confronting him with the truth and providing a moral evaluation of events as they unfold (with a style of audience address that echoes the declamations of seventeenth-century French drama), Bonnard’s Darina doubles as a Greek chorus-cum-Shakespearean fool. Delivering her lines with ease and purpose, Bonnard’s sardonic tone and oft-cocked eyebrow convey an awareness of the ridiculousness of the events around her, while providing a comic outlet for tension and bringing a light touch to the plot.
However, the weakness of this production is in its ending. The unexpected arrival of the King in the original is a fine example of Deus ex machina, so, mutatis mutandis, the let-off discovery of Usman’s (Riad Richie) dual identity must be forgiven. However, one feels that it could have been worked up to more convincingly. Even with the farcical aspect of the play in mind, the scene of Tartuffe’s arrest feels somewhat shambolic and poorly plotted. At times, in the second half of the production, the moralising authorial voice becomes more like frantic raving than thoughtful council. While a degree of social commentary is certainly apposite when modernising Molière, by trying to be so much, the moral of this production ends up as very little.
This version of Molière’s ageless comedy of religious deception and hypocrisy is a romp through intersectional Muslim Birmingham, but at close feels a little rushed and confused.
Tartuffe is playing the Swan Theatre until 23 February 2019. For more information and tickets, see here.