Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – until 23 February 2019
We live in a cultural, religious and morally sensitive age but, thank God, we haven’t lost our sense of humour. Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto have thrown caution to the wind and adapted Molière’s Tartuffe for the Royal Shakespeare Company, setting it in modern day Birmingham among the Pakistani Muslim community.
And if they were worried about a backlash, it doesn’t show in this bold, funny and topical update that exposes Man’s gullibility when confronted with ruthless ambition. It’s less a blistering satire, as originally written, targeting 17th century Catholicism, and more a rich, laugh-out-loud sitcom which has, at its heart, a bogus Islamic cleric scheming to relieve a family of their wealth.
Tartuffe, “a wickedly hilarious Brummy satire of faith, family and #fakingit” (say The RSC themselves), with the exception of a few pointless Brexit gags and the inevitable Syria/Isis jokes, is a wall-to-wall farce (complete with trouser dropping). Well… almost. There’s a moment in the final scene when things turn rather nasty.
We all assume that Tahir Taufiq Arsuf, or Tartuffe, is a reasonably benign trickster, only interested in money and sex. It’s only when he’s cornered that he is revealed as bitter and resentful, letting rip a stream of invective at white Britain where no-one “that looks like me” can rise to the top. It was the shock sting in the tail of such an amiable comedy. And he couldn’t have aimed it at a worse family (or culturally diverse middle-class RSC audience).
Imran Pervaiz may have come to the UK with a dubious passport but, like thousands of Asian immigrants before him, he worked to build up a very successful business. That hard graft, establishing an events business, has resulted in a nice home with its designer decking, put his daughter, Mariam through uni, paid for his son’s designer sports clobber, and affords him a trophy wife and a cleaner.
So he’s worked long, hard and honestly for his success but, perhaps still reeling from the death of his first wife, he’s ripe for the plucking from someone who wants it all without the effort of too much work.
Simon Nagra is just terrific as Imran, the hoodwinked, impressionable patriarch, who is having something of a midlife crisis.
He meets, and is enthralled, by the devout and holy Tartuffe (Asif Khan glibly convincing with a wonderfully ripe accent and impressive beard) who makes the businessman question his consumerism and materialism.
He is so persuasive that he invites him to move into his home, offering the run of the place.
The fourth wall is demolished during the production, right from the beginning, when Darina, the narrator and outspoken Bosnian, Muslim, cleaner, talks directly to the audience.
“The Pervaiz family live in a nice part of Birmingham (cue audience laughter). Yes, there ARE some very nice parts of Birmingham!
“They are also Muslims – no don’t be scared. Apart from being brown, Muslim and immigrant they are perfectly normal.”
At that point the mother-in-law from hell arrives. Traditional, feisty, she hasn’t a good word to say about anyone. You’d think that she’s Meera Syal’s Ummi from Kumars but, in fact, she’s her doppelganger, Dadimaa ( a heavily made-up Amina Zia).
The family discuss the holy cuckoo which has invaded their nest.
“He’s a creep, says son Damee (Raj Bajaj). Friend, accountant and Muslim convert Khalil – or Colin – from Kidderminster (James Clyde with an ear for the vernacular) adds: “This Tartuffe isn’t exactly pukka is he?”
They all suspect that he’s up to something but besotted Imran just can’t see it. He’s infatuated. “Do you think he’s an angel?” he asks his family wistfully.
We see the culture clash between an increasingly pious Imran and his westernised children, he being influenced to have them return to traditional subservience while they baulk against it.
Tartuffe uses the father’s increased devotion to Islam to isolate him and target his wealth, daughter and wife.
I loved the cleverly worded scenes between would-be seducer, Tartuffe, and Imran’s cynical (second) wife Amira (Sasha Behar) when Gupta and Pinto’s dialogue is all in rhyme.
And the rapping duels between characters was playful although, in all honesty, I found it impossible to understand most of what they were saying when they were virtually eating their microphones.
Michelle Bonnard gives a vibrant turn as Darina, reminding us that Islam isn’t only a religion for Asians.
She’s brash and rebellious, listening to Black Sabbath when she’s cleaning and confronting Tartuffe over the religion’s stance about a woman covering her hair.
And Salman Ahktar gives a nice little cameo as Mariam’s “Redditch Romeo,” timid fiance Waqaas.
There are moments of high farce when we see Tartuffe trapped in his skinny jeans, revealing a cute line in leopard print undies, as he attempts to seduce Amira.
And there’s a nice bit of business with Imran hiding in the sofa, Damee diving into an oversized flower vase and the appearance of comedy cops (Birmingham’s finest) at the Pervaiz house.
This could be an episode from a TV sitcom and proves, if any proof was necessary, that a satire written in 1664 – albeit much rewritten and refined by 21st-century adaptors – is still capable of bringing the house down.
Tartuffe runs in rep in the Swan Theatre until February 23.
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