REVIEW: ‘Tartuffe’, Swan Theatre, RSC

Tartuffe‘, Swan Theatre, RSC

“We live in strange times… everybody wants to be themself, but nobody knows who they are anymore. Are you man? Woman? Black? White? Muslim, Christian, Jew, Citizen of World, Europe, British, English, Brummie? Is changing all the time”.

  The RSC invites us to get ‘deen’ with the company of their production of Molière’s ‘Tartuffe‘. An up-to-date version of the French classic, adapted by BAFTA and Emmy-Award winning writers, Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto (The Office, Goodness Gracious Me, The Kumars at No. 42), and directed by Iqbal Khan, the production follows a British Pakistani family in a nice part of Birmingham.

  Imran Pervaiz has it all. The house. The business. The money. The Norwegian spruce decking.

  But something is missing. The Brad Pitt to his George Clooney.

  Imran finds his Brad Pitt in the form of religious conman Tartuffe, who claims to be piety personified. But is he?

Asif Khan (Tartuffe) and Simon Nagra (Imran) in Tartuffe. Photo credit: Topher McGrillis

  This hilariously controversial production provides an insight into the “psyche of the British Pakistani”, and the struggles that people of faith undergo in a world fuelled by consumerism, capitalism, and hypocrisy. The play provides a comic yet truthful satire, not of religion itself, but of those who seek to use religion for their own ends.

  The play makes several references to the notions of westernisation and assimilation. In fact, Simon Nagra‘s pitifully gullible and used Imran blames these two things for causing him to lose sight of “true Islam”, which itself he believes to have been westernised. Earlier, his mother Dadimaa (Amina Zia) claims that the Pervaiz family “used to be so strong. A proper Pakistani Muslim family”. We can’t help but wonder what constitutes, ‘true’ Islam, and a ‘proper’ Pakistani Muslim. Tartuffe later says to Muslim Bosnian cleaner Darina (Michelle Bonnard‘s hugely entertaining and seemingly quick-witted narrator of the story): “I don’t know what kind of corrupt, Westernised version of the faith you get up to in Bosnia”. There seems to be a negative correlation between westernisation and Islam, and that, as a person becomes westernised, as they assimilate into western culture, their faith suffers – is undermined, compromised, corrupted, and made less holy.

  Times change. People, society, has to move forward, or face being left behind. But this does not mean that a person’s faith must suffer. There can be an acceptance of modernity, AND a simultaneous continuance, a perseverance, of faith and religion.

Amina Zia (Dadimaa) in Tartuffe. Photo credit: Topher McGrillis

  We find in this play a clash between traditionalists (ie. Dadimaa and Imran) and modernists (ie. Zainab Hasan‘s free-thinking, educated and independent Mariam, and Raj Bajaj‘s gangsta rapper Damee), which tends to lean towards differences in opinion across generations. It seems to be that the modernists are not true and proper followers of the faith, and therefore not as spiritual.

  The question therefore becomes whether or not these characters can find a point of understanding, a harmonious balance, in which they each respect each other’s views, entirely without judgement, before it is too late.

  Tartuffe himself addresses this when he says, “You modernists like to talk about rationality, but I’m a traditional Muslim. A ‘real’ Muslim. We’ve been doing things this way for 1400 years. There’s no reason to change now”. Perhaps on a deeper level, could it be the case that rigid tradition, that refuses to take into account modernity, and with it the enlightenment that often comes with it, is itself hypocritical in a modern world?

  The Oxford Dictionary gives the definition of hypocrisy as ‘the practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case’. So for those characters who claim to be ‘proper’ Muslims, is that not in itself hypocritical?

  Our older characters believe themselves to be more spiritual than our younger characters, more firmly on the path to truth, believing the faith of Mariam and Damee to have been tainted by their association with western culture and ideas. But this is not necessarily the case. As different nations and cultures continue to assimilate, does that automatically make the faith of new generations anything less than that of their predecessors? It is Tartuffe himself that preaches that it is a person’s spirituality that defines them, so surely increasing western culture can have no bearing on true faith?

Zainab Hasan (Mariam) and Michelle Bonnard (Darina) in Tartuffe. Photo credit: Topher McGrillis

  Despite differences in views relating to such things as love, marriage, and gender equality, all our characters are Muslim. They all follow and adhere to the 5 Pillars of Islam. Surely, then, are they not all equal? Religions tend to have set fundamental laws that their followers MUST adhere to. However, the principles, the greyer areas, are down to the individual consciences of the follower. Cleverly, whilst Tartuffe appears to be doing everything he MUST do, such as praying at the Mosque and reading the Quran, appealing to the traditionally-minded characters way of thinking, he uses these grey areas to claim that there is room for leeway with regards to different interpretations of scripture. Hence the ease with which a person can easily slip, or easily be led, from saint to sinner.

  James Clyde‘s white Muslim convert Khalil (aka Colin) states that it is difficult to “grasp all the nuances” of British Pakistani relationships. Difficult though it may be, this production does pretty well on that front. We are not presented with one-dimensional caricatures of the British Pakistani. There are nuances to these characters, and the play, the second half in particular, is injected with moments of pathos. It is present in the moment Mariam drops to her knees, tears streaming down her face, begging her father not to make her marry a man she does not love. It is present in the tender reconciliation between father Imran and son Damee. It is present in the almost pitiful Imran’s manipulated desire to do what he truly believes is the best thing for his children.

  What we are presented with in this production is actually a very realistic look at a typical modern-day British Pakistani family, touched by the issues that many face today. We see the struggles of these religious people trying their best, as do many, to stay on their own “path of truth”. It can be hard to hold fast to faith in a faithless world, in a world where the “trappings of decadent western capitalism” are as gods, where an all-consuming consumerism abounds.

Simon Nagra (Imran) and cast in Tartuffe. Photo credit: Topher McGrillis

  Asif Khan’s Tartuffe is compellingly watcheable. Perfectly encapsulating the hypocrisy of the character, excessively rolling his r’s with what is a very questionable Arabic accent, that seems to fall into the thickest of Brummie accents when he is startled, he is, on the surface, the perfect Muslim. He prays. He reads the Quran. He gives what time and money he has to helping the poor. However, when not under scrutiny, he tucks his traditional dress into his skinny jeans, and spins a basketball on his finger for an impressively long time. He rap battles Damee, son of Imran. And he strips down to his tight leopard-print boxers, and tries to seduce Amira Imran’s new wife. Despite his hypocrisy, however, Tartuffe makes some rather shrewd comments, the likes of which nearly dupe us into becoming followers of his.

  Crucially, and rather surprisingly, Tartuffe makes one of the most startlingly powerful speeches of the play. When things come to a somewhat comically coincidental but satisfying conclusion, and Tartuffe’s veil of hypocrisy is lifted, he makes a confession in what is an alarmingly truthful speech. He states that, though he has often stretched the truth, he was “just trying to make a living”.

  For “who does someone like [him] get to be in this country? Prime Minister? Head of the Bank of England?”. Those people do not look like Tartuffe. So what is he left with? “Taxi driver? Shelf stacker? Maybe a jacked up Jihadi going out to Syria waving a gun around”. Or “this guy with the beard and the clothes. Now [he] looks like ‘a Muslim’”. Now, he’s not invisible. Now, he’s got followers. Suddenly, although there is no empathy for this fraudulent character, particularly given the way he tore apart an innocent family, and almost succeeded in stripping them of all they had, is there now some form of understanding, however slight? Could it be argued that he has been forced into hypocrisy because of the hypocrisy of the world he lives in? This is so telling about the society we are living in today – where religious persecution and extremism continues to alienate certain peoples, forcing many to take drastic action, if not entirely moral.

Asif Khan (Tartuffe) and cast in Tartuffe. Photo credit: Topher McGrillis

  Molière wrote this play in 1664, although it was immediately censored for its ‘resemblance of vice to virtue’. There is no doubt that the play breeds controversy. But controversy breeds conversation. And Tartuffe is a conversation worth having.

  With its many references to Brexit, Windrush and Me Too, this adaptation proves that such things as persecution, prejudice, racism and gender inequality continue to abound on a global scale. The play therefore uses bare-faced, brazen humour, satire, irony and sarcasm as a means of exploiting the lies, deceit, dishonesty, corruption and hypocrisy, not of religion itself, or of the religious, but of those who use it to achieve their own selfish ends. The play does not “doubt the sincerity of any true believers”, but of those “who use religion to lead people astray”. 

  Indeed, despite the production’s general atmosphere of humour, with certain elements, such as the stereotype of the ‘Brummie’, sometimes teetering on the edge of exaggeration, purely for comic effect, this doesn’t detract from the seriousness beneath. The weighty issues faced by Molière’s original characters, and this British Pakistani family, are overwhelmingly similar. 

  A riotously funny, yet shockingly weighty production, featuring outlandish props, masterful comic performances and raps galore, any who do not enjoy this production can go to hell in a Nissan Micra, because…

Top Billing,

The RSC is killing it

With this show, innit?

Raj Bajaj (Damee) and Michelle Bonnard (Darina) in Tartuffe. Photo credit: Topher McGrillis

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