Tartuffe: A Birmingham British Asian take on Molière

In this modern update of the French satire, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Tartuffe explores family divides and religion with equal humour and seriousness.

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Such images remind us of the Pakistani community pressures on Imran or ‘log kya kahenge’.

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) bring Brum to the Bard’s home by transforming the iconic French play, Tartuffe.

Writers Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto work with director Iqbal Khan to create a bold and fun adaptation.

Molière’s Tartuffe tells the cautionary tale of a wealthy man, Imran Pervaiz (Simon Nagra). Originally set in 1660’s Catholic France, Tartuffe or ‘The Hypocrite’ now follows the Pakistani Muslim Pervaiz family in modern Birmingham.

Imran falls under the spell of with the penniless Tartuffe or Tahir Taufiq Arsuf (Asif Khan) and his false piety. Taking Tartuffe into his home, Imran becomes determined to have Tartuffe marry his daughter, Mariam (Zainab Hasan).

By ordering his daughter to reject her fiancée Waqaas (Salman Akhtar) for Tartuffe, he throws the household into disarray.

Desperately trying to thwart Tartuffe’s machinations are Imran’s second wife, Amira (Sasha Behar) and her step-son Damee (Raj Bajaj). Plus, family friend and accountant, Khalil (James Clyde) and long-term Bosnian cleaner, Darina (Michelle Bonnard), offer voices of reason and ridicule.

A Warm Welcome to the Family

The eponymous character doesn’t make his appearance far later until this social media savvy incarnation can make a proper entrance with his assistant, Usman (Riad Richie). Instead, it’s perhaps the most sensible character of the family, the Bosnian cleaner, Darina.

Having worked for them for ten years, she’s very comfortable with the Pervaiz family. Indeed, Pinto and Gupta quickly accustom us to the noise and boisterousness that will characterise the play as she bursts on to the sounds of Black Sabbath.

Similarly, Darina is comfortable enough to inform us that the Pervaiz family are crazy. Speaking directly to the amused audience while pushing a vacuum cleaner, she firstly assures the audience that they’re just like us.

Although, of course, they’re brown Muslim immigrants in contrast to much of the audience. Nevertheless, Darina’s character doesn’t shy away from the disparity between the cast and the audience.

She reveals she’s part of Bosnia’s Muslim community, quipping how this contravenes our expectations.

This forthright manner continues throughout the play and Darina’s dual position as an insider/outsider allows us to feel closer to the family. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if we don’t look like them or always understand the use of non-English phrases.

Rather the audience feels welcome to share the family’s joys and worries as they attempt to drive away Tartuffe.

Humour With A Purpose

Moreover, Darina’s no-nonsense approach provides a refreshing contrast to balance out some of the family’s more bizarre antics. This is crucial as the farcical nature of the play could easily alienate spectators.

Nevertheless, careful direction and the use of characters like Darina mitigate this potential annoyance.

Furthermore, at its heart is an extremely serious subject matter. Like Christianity in Molière’s time, Islam is a contentious issue. Such levity in the play gives the chance for critical debate without feeling like an attack.

Anyway, in the original satirical play, there’s a great deal of witty dialogue. Molière made use of the tradition of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte to draw memorable characters like the young lovers.

Nevertheless, Gupta and Pinto appear to amp up the humour of the production with the family’s attitudes towards each other. In addition, there’s the initial section’s cat-and-mouse dance of the Pervaiz family trying to catch Tartuffe out.

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Damee is an excellent example of both as the most slapstick family member, who uses bravado to confront Tartuffe.

There’s a scene where Damee hides in an oversize vase of flowers to overhear Tartuffe trying to seduce Amira. He struggles to lift himself in while Darina buckles under his weight, trying to help.

With Tartuffe about to enter, Gupta and Pinto maintain enough tension of trying to outwit him. The stakes feel high for the family but there’s excellent comic timing.

This is even more apparent when Amira again attempts to seduce Tartuffe. Instead, it’s Imran who hides in a pink Louis Rose long couch.

Again, there’s a very real danger for Amira as Tartuffe comes onto her. We see Amira desperately bash on the chaise-lounge with frustration that Imran hasn’t burst out. While we laugh, there’s the niggling worry that her plan hasn’t worked and she’ll be a victim of Tartuffe.

After all, in between both acts of trickery, we witness Imran choose Tartuffe over Damee. The latter ends up having to leave the family home.

Overall, humour is an essential part of this play as it makes some of the most distasteful elements, particularly Imran’s behaviour, more palatable for the audience.

A British Pakistani Household

The carefully-considered set appears as a key element rather than an afterthought as it balances multiple factors in the production.

The wealth of the Pervaiz family is evident through a few well-chosen luxury pieces. In comparison, there’s the sense of their Pakistani heritage through the rich colours, overflowing blooms, and a mix of patterns.

The lighting mimics this with midnight blue, magenta and tangerine glinting off the metal balcony and spiral staircase. Though the number of soft furnishings avoids harshness.

More importantly, this intelligent design is a boon by reflecting the equally bold and colourful personalities of the story. In fact, it relates most clearly to Imran, who is most interested in signifiers of his wealth.

Even when he has taken Tartuffe into his home, he cannot help but mention his expensive ‘Norwegian spruce decking’. The rest of his home is equally deliberate. Therefore when he signs over everything to Tartuffe, this makes his loss more acute.

Overall, the set’s sense of verisimilitude makes it feel like the family’s home and heightens the tragedy of its invasion by Tartuffe.

A Family Under Pressure

Moreover, the use of neon light poles to create frames surrounding the stage gives the impression of entrapment. Some frames showing the pressures affecting their decisions such as Imran’s first wife.

In the first scene, Amira wins our sympathies with Dadimaa (Amina Zia). Her mother-in-law rejects Amira’s making “her favourite” lamb dish.

Rather than accepting her kindness, she complains Amira has only been in the house a short time so how would she know her favourite. Amira then offers a vegetarian meal, yet Dadimaa retorts that they’re not Hindus.

As Dadimaa bewails the loss of Imran’s first wife, her image hands literally and figuratively over Amira.

Although as Tartuffe’s influence increases, an image of Mecca appearing, reflects this.

In some ways, this makes us more sympathetic to Imran. It’s easy to position him as a figure of ridicule.

Nonetheless, the confining feeling of the house and such images remind us of the Pakistani community pressures on Imran or ‘log kya kahenge’.

Here, Dadimaa’s character may be a source of humour like Damee. She reflects certain stereotypes like insisting she’s not diabetic and eating sweets according to Tartuffe’s advice.

Indeed, she’s under Tartuffe’s sway even more so than Imran, but it’s a shame that she doesn’t show more complexity than this.

Above all, it’s inescapable that this family has more problems than just Tartuffe. Their household may seem coordinated, but they are very much divided.

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A Self-Aware Script

It’s fun to imagine how Molière or Shakespeare would react to some of the bad language spouted on the RSC’s famous stage.

Nevertheless, the writers balance this with the language of love or, at least, lust. When they’re alone Tartuffe deliberately responds to Amira in rhyme. He does this to create reference the Shakespearean star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet –  a fact that he references himself.

Alongside this, the writers insert a sly reference to that “French writer”. This self-awareness adds to Darina’s commentary.

The camaraderie between the script, Darina and the audience cleverly prevent the audience from feeling alienated by other linguistic considerations. For instance, when the slip out of English, spectators don’t feel like an outsider in a complex family dynamic.

In fact, it’s hard to feel like an outsider when Pinto and Gupta involve us so much. Tartuffe strides to the edge of the stage, clad only in a pair of tight, leopard-print underpants.

At another point, Darina comes off stage to hoover under the audience’s feet. Perhaps this level of audience reaction is a bit excessive at times.

On the other hand, this heightens our sympathies with Darina or the other family friend, Khalil. They are invested in the family drama but are technically powerless outsiders.

Men and Women

Love, rather than lust, seems to appear between Waqas and Mariam or Damee and Zainab. All are desperately in love with their significant other, with Waqas and Zainab also being siblings.

On the other hand, It’s unclear if these couples are as complementary, at times.

Firstly, Damee helps Mariam partially because her successful marriage would make it easier for him to marry Zainab. Yet we never hear Zainab speak while Damee constantly croons sweet nothings.

Then, Mariam and Waqas are frustratingly unable to communicate until Darina brings them together.

Still, in comparison to Molière’s France, the script doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the long-term consequences of Mariam marrying Tartuffe. As Darina points out, Mariam will have to sleep with Tartuffe, a man who appears much older than her.

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In fact, the use of language shows how they help negative attitudes towards women persist.

Asif Khan demonstrates a particular talent for using bad language effectively. When arrested, the squashed down bile in Tartuffe is free for a moment. He hurls explicit abuse at Amira – “cock hungry slag”. Of course, the fact that he was the one lusting for Amira is clearly lost on him.

Similarly, the idea of ‘sharam’ and respecting your parents silences Mariam in front of Imran’s demands. Darina admonishes her for this silence, yet Tartuffe highlights an important reality for women in the Asian community.

The silencing of women with honour is more commonplace than desirable. But Pinto and Gupta make sure to portray a range of female characters.

While ineffectual male characters like Imran and Damee concern themselves with the women’s honour, in reality, female characters like Amira and Darina save themselves.

Tartuffe wields chastity and religious knowledge as weapons but they expose Tartuffe’s hypocrisies. Amira shows his lustfulness while Darina outwits him on his knowledge of Islamic texts.

Behar is particularly strong as she shows Amira’s inner resilience despite some comical desperation to thwart Tartuffe.

Again, Darina is notable in pushing spectators to question their own impressions of Islam.

Wearing Their World

The wardrobe department excels in costuming their characters to add authenticity to their world.

Amira’s elegant garb reflects her potential status as a trophy wife for Imran. We never see much affection between the two, perhaps as he shows more for Tartuffe.

Both son and daughter felt like they were plucked out of Birmingham and onto the RSC’s stage with their clothes, movement and accent.

Nevertheless, nothing feels more true to life than Dadimaa’s pairing of a traditional Indian suit with a cardigan and chunky pink Nike trainers to match. Topped off with an omnipresent handbag in her mobility scooter, she could zoom off stage and onto Soho Road.

Most thematically interesting, however, is Tartuffe. The first act saw him in the long white salwar with tight black trousers and shapeless boots giving him the sense of devilish satyr-like hind legs.

Of course, by the second half, he was far more open about his dubious moral compass. Swapping the trousers for blue skinny jeans, his pretence of piety falls as his conman identity becomes apparent.

Simplified Stereotypes or Complete Characters?

As mentioned, many of the characters hold particular roles in this production.

Darina is the voice of reason. Dadimaa is a hilarious stereotype of Asian aunties and a representative of the Pakistani community.

It’s easy to go around the cast and sometimes pigeonhole them too much for instance by Zainab’s silence. Alternatively, Waqaas as the dim fiancée that’s slightly reminiscent of Citizen Khan’s Amjad. Although he’s equally lovable thanks to Akhtar.

Even Khalil is comical as he is overly-emotional and slightly ineffectual. Nevertheless, he strikingly questions Tartuffe how “the most tolerant and academically inquisitive religion in the world ended up being hijacked by people like you?”

Tartuffe belittles Khalil by calling him Colin, dismissing him as a Muslim revert and therefore an outsider. Yet as Tartuffe’s foil, Khalil gets to the heart of the whole production. He deserves as much credit as Darina by sticking with the Pervaiz family.

Likewise, Damee creates a lot of physical humour, yet there are hidden depths to his character to emphasise the consequences of Imran’s actions.

We see Damee attempt to tell his father that Tartuffe has sexually assaulted Amira. This backfires to see Imran throw Damee out the house. While he initially covers it up with bravado, we see Bajaj give a powerful performance.

Damee quietly messes with the hem of his t-shirt as Imran yells. While Damee finally explodes with anger, we see the profound hurt that Imran has caused.

Then Mariam could be the stereotype of the oppressed daughter and suffers as she almost loses her fiancée. Instead, she shows the conflict of a modern educated woman within the expectations of a Pakistani family.

On one hand, she is passionate about gender equality for women in “Sub-Saharan Africa” and Imran has encouraged her studies. On the other, it’s terrible that for all her smarts, Mariam laments that she never learnt how such efforts at gender equality can apply to her life in Birmingham.

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The Predator and Prey?

Naturally, the most interesting pair are Tartuffe and Imran as the two who should be the easiest to pigeonhole. Whereas this production makes this more complex.

Writer Richard Pinto tells us:

“I think the audience has to make their own minds up about the Pervaizes. You can point to good things and bad things about them, just as you can point to good things and bad things about your own family!”

“But I hope that as an audience you will sympathise with the trials and tribulations the family has to go through, and you will end up liking them because they’ve made you laugh along the way.”

But he adds:

“Imran, the father, has further to go to win back our respect; again, ultimately you’ll have to decide for yourself whether he succeeds.”

That will be the question for many playgoers. As mentioned, it’s easy to see some of the pressures on Imran but he endangers his family, not only emotionally, but physically.

Nagra adds depth to his character as he easily swings from joviality to rage or self-pity. There’s a lack of emotional maturity in Imran that leaves attendees with worries even when departing the play.

After all, Pinto and Gupta put an interesting twist on the original play’s ending but there’s the sense that Imran hasn’t really learned anything.

Instead, Richard Pinto agrees that it’s Tartuffe who become more sympathetic in this production:

“Both the original Tartuffe and our own Brummie version are conmen and rogues, who also overstep the boundaries of moral sexual behaviour.”

“But our Tartuffe has suffered from pigeonholing, profiling and prejudice through the simple fact of being a British Muslim. The 17th century French Tartuffe suffered no such systemic discrimination.”

Indeed, Khan’s true moment to shine comes in Tartuffe’s final speech. After rooting for the family to catch him out, the audience is slightly wrong-footed to suddenly sympathise with him.

Pinto explains the reasoning behind this:

“Molière never gave the audience an insight into the motivations of his Tartuffe, beyond the desire to scam his victims and possibly enjoy some adulterous liaisons along the way.”

“We felt we owed it to our Tartuffe to scratch the surface a bit, and maybe uncover a little bit of the complexity that’s inherent in any flawed personality. We also wanted to play on themes of identity that run through this version of the play.”

This is the perfect final touch to this staging of Tartuffe. It’s easy to see this production as just a comedy, yet like Molière’s 17th-century play, you walk away with a smile on your lips but serious questions in your mind.

Music of the Modern Era

Still, this is a production keen to embrace all aspects of modern Britain.

There’s a melting pot of musical influences from the opening moments of Black Sabbath. The production interestingly combined South Asian instruments of the sweet sitar and rhythm of the tabla to the cello.

As Mariam’s marriage to Tartuffe seemed to approach, it was hard not to sit up as the dhol began its impending beat.

The music dictates how we should feel in moments of sadness and joy. In fact, much of the production surprisingly features rap.

Again assuaging moments of extreme tension, we see Raj Bajaj rap Damee’s frustrations. Thankfully this avoids the cringe-worthy because of Bajaj’s smooth flow and polished delivery.

Later, he battles with Tartuffe in a war of words. Without a doubt, this amuses the audience but highlights how the older generations should make efforts to speak the language of the young, rather than always the other way round.

Imran’s inability to communicate with his family and weakness for Tartuffe’s sweet words almost cause his downfall.

Instead, it’s crucial to speak across generations, gender, ethnicity, class and other markers of identity.

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British Asians at The RSC

‘The Hypocrite’ applies to more than Tartuffe in this retelling of the classic French play.

There’s Imran obviously or Dadimaa who only rejects Tartuffe once returning to Pakistan – the precious homeland – suddenly doesn’t seem that appealing.

But this 21st-century adaptation showing a Pakistani family in Birmingham is evidently not for some ‘diversity quota’. The authentic costuming and setting, nod to real-life issues and complex characters, all point to this.

Instead, Tartuffe bravely confronts the hypocrisy in British Asian and wider society as theatre should do.

Pinto discusses the importance of representing British Asians at the RSC:

“The RSC is as much a part of our society and culture as any other British institution, it belongs to all of us and so it should reflect modern Britain in all its multicultural glory.”

“And, contrary to the way it is perceived by some people, the RSC is working incredibly hard to do just that. The idea that it’s a corner of ‘Merrie Olde Englande’ preserved in aspic forever was debunked a long time ago.”

“In recent years it’s been home to some of the most cutting-edge and diverse productions in British theatre; hopefully the word will start to spread and more British Asians will come along and see for themselves that the RSC belongs to them too!”

For some, it is a bold move for the RSC to tell a story of British Asians in the Bard’s home. Braver still to critique various levels of today’s British society.

However, above all, it simply continues the aims of Molière’s original play that made it so successful despite its ban – it speaks the truth.

Sadly, even in this day and age, that’s still a bold and brave thing to do.

Tartuffe will run at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon until 23 February 2019. For tickets, please visit the RSC website here.

An English and French graduate, Daljinder likes travelling, wandering around museums with headphones and getting over-invested in a TV show. She loves Rupi Kaur’s poem: “If you were born with the weakness to fall you were born with the strength to rise."

Photos courtesy of Topher McGrillis © RSC



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