Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – until 23 February 2019
It says something good about our arts establishment that this sharp caper comes from the Royal Shakespeare Company, not some daring pub-room ensemble It was Gregory Doran, the RSC’s leader, who surprised Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto (veterans of The Kumars, Citizen Khan etc) with the suggestion they adapt Moliere’s 17c comedy of hypocrisy, and set it in a Pakistani Muslim family in Birmingham, directed by Iqbal Khan.
Stroke of genius, that: the play is about a pious fraud, a religious con-man who dazzles a rich merchant into promising him his wealth and daughter even as he sets about seducing the wife. It was an attack on corrupt “spiritual directors” of a more pious era: logical to head for the most pious community in our midst. Tartuffe is Tahir Taufiq Arsue, a showy worshipper from the mosque, his victim Imran a second-generation immigrant with a glamorous second wife, flashy house and “Norwegian spruce decking on the patio, seven thousand pounds”.
Simon Nagra, round-faced and earnest, is an absolute delight as Imran: the Brummie accent with its plaintive upswing works extraordinarily well in evoking his dangerous innocence as he feels guilt at his wealth and yearns for the wonders of Tartuffe’s “true Islam”. The laughs come early with the glorious Amina Zia as the essential bossy old Mama-ji Dadimaa: the woman has a unique ability to turn her mouth down in a perfect crescent of disapproval, I’ve been practicing in the mirror ever since and really resented her exit.
Raj Bajaj is the teenage son, Zainab Hasan the endangered daughter. Tartuffe himself only appears after 40 minutes: Asif Khan with flowing robes and beard, a faux-Arab accent and rolling r’s grafted on to his Small Heath vowels (the appeal of exoticism is handy for false prophets).
Cleverly, the framing narrative comes from a very Moliere character, the scornful maid who defies Tartuffe and Imran’s absurd worship: she too is Muslim, a Bosnian cleaner. Michelle Bonnard is the sane comedy core, magnificently streetwise in raggedy denim and leggings, and stands up for the appalled, obedient daughter in one of the few almost properly troubling scenes when the father orders her to marry.
“This is not medieval times” she snarls, but the girl, though a university student and supposed feminist, is cowed. That’s clever too: her subservience is culturally as hard to kick off as if she was a 17c chattel-daughter in the original.
Mostly the comedy is good; if at times one tires of Khan’s fearful Tartuffe artificiality the glint in his eyes wins you back. The scene in the second act when the spirited wife (Sasha Behar) hides her husband in a sofa to trap the holy man into open predation is weepingly hilarious even before the leopardprint underpants.
But it’s the sharp commentary on extreme religiosity which hits home: there’s Tartuffe’s insistence that the maid cover her hair and her quoting the Qu’ran that she needn’t, while he snarls about “wrong translations “. There’s his dismissal of the convert Khalil because the only “real” Muslims are “brown ones”, and when challenged about Syria his eye-rollingly pious “I will never condemn a man for acting as his faith tells him to”.
Above all there’s Khalil’s plaintive “How did we get to a point where the most tolerant and academically inquisitive religion in the world ended up being hijacked by people like you?” Bravo. So it’s a fun, sitcom evening, and though I could have done with fewer rapping, hip-hop rhyming outbreaks they too are fun in their way and might bring in the kids. Who should, absolutely, see it. As for the ending, Moliere’s was due to force-majeure and Louis XIV, so Gupta and Pinto have freely adjusted it. Who needs the Sun King when you can have a twist more credible than Jed Mercurio’s , some comedy West Midlands Police, and the reappearance of old Dadimaa with the downturned mouth. ,Who I had been really starting to miss..
www.rsc.org.uk to 23 Feb