The Swan Theatre
Some time after his inspired production of Much Ado about Nothing, set in India, which made sense of a lot of Shakespeare’s tiny details which often strain comprehension and credulity, comes his much awaited Tartuffe. Not only is the play set in Birmingham, it is also in a rewritten version by Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto.
Moliere is the French Ben Jonson and Tartuffe’s early history robbed it of some of its originally conceived satirical pungency because of the political situation and its warring elements in the early 1660s. Gupta and Pinto restore much of Moliere’s biting satire of hypocrisy, combining it with the hot potatoes of religion and politics. The transposition to Birmingham is a joy and the introduction of the narrator/participant character Darina as the Bosnian cleaner (brilliantly played by Michelle Bonnard) creates further universality and contemporary relevance.
The Muslim Pervaiz family is ruled over by Imran, beautifully played as a thoroughly convincing rather stupid and gullible despot by Simon Nagra, gets religion and becomes besotted by Moliere’s Tartuffe character. Imran’s zealous conversion causes credible complications for his westernised family – his sharp but astute wife Amira (Sasha Behar), his daughter Mariam (Zainab Hasan) and street boy son Damee (Raj Bajaj) – because they have no love for the ‘adopted’ Tartuffe and can see that he is an outsider. They catch Taruffe’s phoniness which Asif Khan so cleverly conveys in subtly gradated stages at the same time as the audience does. Imran eventually gives his house over to Tartuffe before the latter’s hypocrisy is unmasked because he is unable to find fault in him despite his lecherous groping his wife’s breast. In the end Tartuffe is unmasked and the new surprise ending gives some measure of order to the chaos that unthinking devotion to pseudo-religion has caused. There are so many contemporary jokes and references throughout the play that the audience can hardly fail to realise that religious infatuation is no different from political infatuation.
The text is hilariously funny, the pace extremely brisk, the music wonderful in the variety of ways it characterises, the direction inventive and full of gags of different kinds (Darina vacuuming in the stalls seats, Damee hiding in a huge floral display, Imran hiding in the sofa in the unmasking scene, fun with cushions, Tiger briefs, Tartuffe playing basketball, for example). The wonderful music catches elements both of contemporary England and the Baroque elements of the play’s source, as well as being used as a tool for characterisation, culminating in a concluding dance rap.
The satire is sharp. At the end it is revealed that Imran was an illegal immigrant who realises in his moment of anagnorosis that he should never have voted Leave and that Tartuffe is not the only imposter. He may have brought the family close to disaster but his religious sidekick Usman (Riad Richie) turns out completely unexpectedly to be an undercover police agent. Opposite sides of the moral spectrum, then, both use religion as their tool. It leaves you with something rather more complicated to think about that you had reckoned.
The whole thing is a romp, a suspense story, a keen satire, a delight to see and hear. Moreover it shows up the stupidity of most men (Mariam’s finance Waqaas, charmingly played by Salman Akhtar and Usman apart) and the potential power of women caught up in evnents over which they have apparently little control.