Tartuffe review – RSC's buoyant satire of modern religious hypocrisy

The Swan, Stratford-on-Avon
This striking new take on Molière by the writers behind Citizen Khan sends up religious phoniness and secular pretension

These days, every classic play seems to be updated or “reimagined”. In the case of this new version of Molière’s Tartuffe by Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto, who collaborated on TV’s Citizen Khan and The Kumars at No 42, it makes total sense. What we see is a satire on modern religious hypocrisy that respects Molière’s flawless comic structure.

The action has been relocated to a Birmingham suburb where a British Pakistani family live a life of comfortable affluence. Imran, the parvenu patriarch, was once proud of his Norwegian spruce decking, but has fallen under the spell of a seemingly straitlaced holy man, Tartuffe. Not only does Imran decide the family has to live as “real Muslims”, he also plans to marry his progressive daughter, studying the plight of women in sub-Saharan Africa, to Tartuffe and even signs over his property to the two-faced intruder.

This is not the first time the play has been given an Asian context. In 1990, Jatinder Verma did a production set in Mogul India with Tartuffe as a saffron-skirted fakir for the National Theatre. The virtue of this new version by Gupta and Pinto is that it attacks both religious exploitation and secularised sophistication without condescension. In fact, it goes out of its way to make clear that Tartuffe is an aberrant con man rather than a genuine product of Islam. In one of the most potent lines of the production, Imran’s closest friend asks Tartuffe “how the most tolerant and academically inquisitive religion in the world ended up being hijacked by people like you?”

Gupta and Pinto’s shrewdest stroke is to elevate the cleaner, Darina, into a pivotal figure. Hilariously played by a busily hoovering Michelle Bonnard, she here is a Bosnian Muslim who sees through Tartuffe’s fakery and the family’s social pretensions. She caps Tartuffe’s quotations from the Qur’an about female modesty by arguing that there is nothing to prove women should cover their hair or head. At the same time, she sees through the absurdity of Imran’s bromance with Tartuffe by comparing them to George Clooney and Brad Pitt – if the last two were Pakistani Muslims.

Molière’s ironically happy ending has been ingeniously rewritten and even evokes a sliver of sympathy for Tartuffe. But Iqbal Khan’s buoyant production, like the text, gives full value to the set pieces, including the famous scene of Tartuffe’s attempted seduction of Imran’s wife. Asif Khan endows Tartuffe with just the right blend of outward sobriety and furtive lechery as he hops around in his leopard skin underpants. Simon Nagra as Imran exudes the guilt-ridden gullibility of a Birmingham businessman anxious to return to his Muslim roots, while Sasha Behar as his wife suggests a strong woman perfectly capable of outwitting Tartuffe on her own terms.

One or two minor characters are strenuously overplayed and, though Sarah Sayeed’s music is good, it works overtime to remind us of the eclectic tastes of Imran’s family.

The joy of the show is that it offers a vigorous new take on Molière’s play by reminding us that wealth offers no protection against a hostile environment and that all of the world’s religions are subject to slippery abuse.

•At the Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 23 February


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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