By Saiqa Latif.
The Sufi poet Bulleh Shah wrote many a verse about hypocrisy in man. “Sir te topi te niyat khoti” is a perfect description for the outwardly religious and inwardly dubious character that is Tartuffe. The French word for ‘hypocrite’, Tartuffe is the latest offering by RSC in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Adapted with a twist, it’s a modern rendition of a centuries-old comedy by Molière that has migrated into the world of a British Pakistani family in present-day Birmingham. Written by the team behind Goodness Gracious Me and Citizen Khan, Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto have transformed the French play into a script peppered with familiar Punjabi phrases married to Brummie slang.
A short train journey away from the birthplace of Shakespeare, the inner city streets of our beloved Birmingham were constantly evoked by the actors in the intimate setting of the Swan theatre. The close proximity between the audience and the players was enough to convince ticket holders that they really were in the living room of the Pervaiz family in a ‘richer’ part of the city, having upgraded from their humble beginnings in Small Heath. Brexit, Windrush and Prevent all make a cameo appearance, injecting a welcome dose of reality into the play.
The patriarch of the family Imran laments in long speeches on the emptiness of his material success and the trappings of wealth (notwithstanding his priceless Norwegian wooden decking and Mercedes Benz). Cue the entry of Tahir Taufiq Arsuf, ‘Tartuffe’ for short, spiritual advisor to the rich. We quickly watch his rise from a poor stranger to the master of the house. Somewhere between the cap on his head and his long beard, hide the clues of his sham piety if you look carefully enough.
Played by the actor Asif Khan, Tartuffe manipulates the other characters with his colourful sermons, the tone of his words changing like a chameleon seeking to strip its prey from all their riches. Forbidden fruit becomes halal on demand at his bidding according to need. A techno-savvy guru, selfies with the #ComeDeenWithMe are promoted to mask his two-faced appearance from the hordes of Twitter and Instagram followers. Needless to say, drainpipe jeans and a penchant for leopard print prove to be a weakness he cannot resist with hilarious consequences.
Ultimately, it is the strong female characters that steal the show. Darina, the Bosnian maid with her rock chick denim, multi-tasks by dishing out thought-provoking gems of wisdom with a hoover in hand, while poking fun at patriarchy and social norms. Her target is usually the head of the house, the hapless Imran. She happily lays bare his blind devotion to the shady Tartuffe by exposing the holes in his holiness. With full access to the Pervaiz family’s dirty laundry, she takes down his male pride by a peg or two.
And of course, no Asian family drama would be complete without a cursing daddi ma whose physical fragility is compensated by lashings from her acid tongue. Equally enamoured by Tartuffe, the matriarch of the family targets Amira, her dutiful daughter-in-law. The glamorous new wife of Imran, we see her struggling with her role of stepmother to the beat-boxing Damee and his academically inclined sister Mariam.
A staunch feminist, Mariam uses every opportunity to promote female rights with legal maxims well rehearsed in university exams. But away from the text books, she struggles to balance her strong opinions with her role as a daughter. Torn between her fiancé and her father’s choice of husband, she must decide if the wishes of her family supersede those of her own.
While religious hypocrisy is the common thread that binds the characters together, at the centre of the play is the real tension between modernity and tradition. Tartuffe is a family comedy with plenty of laughs and a serious message of redemption and forgiveness of those who give away their power (and fortunes) to others.
Tartuffe is showing at Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon until 23 Feb 2019. Book tickets at rsc.org.uk.