With all the tangled difficulties the BBC has been getting itself into over the last few weeks, especially the whole #GaryGate saga, it’s important to recognise that they are one of the few TV and radio broadcasting mediums which still support online theatre – Sky Arts being another notable exception. Every now and again – perhaps not often enough some would say- videoed theatre content is given an airing on BBC 4 which is then transferred to the iPlayer where it resides for the best part of a year. The latest piece to be included actually started life in 2018 at the RSC where it was very well received. Molière’s Tartuffe was then reinvigorated post pandemic and this version was recorded at Birmingham Rep. It is a modern day reboot adapted by Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto who largely eschew the rigours of the formal Alexandrines of the original in favour of a text which is rather more gutsy. However, its central narrative of a religious charlatan who worms his way into and then takes over the lives of a provincial family is left intact.
The family in this instance is one of Pakistani heritage living in the West Midlands and the bogus holy man supposedly follows Islam rather than Christianity. Molière’s satire on those who purportedly practice religion but actually use it for their own selfish and venal ends remains as does the credulousness of those upon whom they prey (rather than for whom they pray). The secondary plot of the young lovers temporarily thwarted is also kept in place and, with its concerns about the practices of an arranged marriage, is still remarkably contemporary. Gupta and Pinto’s script is also able to focus on the culture clash between the family’s heritage and the lure of modern Western society’s social norms especially for the young people in the story. Son Damee (Salman Akhtar) is entranced by his PS4 and relishes rap music; daughter Mariam (Anshula Bain) has been to university and completed a course on gender studies but is still prepared to honour her father’s wishes by marrying the man of his choice.
That this rather older man is the hypocritical imposter Tahir Taufiq Arsuf or Tartuffe should ring alarm bells for father Imran (Simon Nagra)but he is blinded by his devotion to the man he has picked up at the local mosque and who would seem to be responsible for some sort of religious awakening in the small time businessman who has made good in his new country. Little does Imran know, or seemingly want to know, that his house guest is not only in pursuit of Mariam for marriage but also has lecherous designs on his wife Amira (Natalia Campbell) as well as driving a wedge between father and son and plotting to get control of the business and the house. For Tartuffe may be a despicable parvenu but he is a wily operator, big on Twitter and on taking selective elements from the Quran to suit his arguments; indeed when it is to his benefit he is not averse to making bits up too.
Asif Khan in the central role makes a relatively late entrance into the play but then proceeds to dominate proceedings, as indeed his character should. His shifty looks, self-satisfied smirks and creepy pursuit of mother and daughter (not to mention his leopard print underpants) are a clear indication of the real man hiding behind the mask of respectability and zealotry. In the latter stages, as Tartuffe ceases to act without restraint, the monster comes to the fore – even so, the script does allow for moments of pity. The other notable performance comes from Olga Fedori, the Pervaiz’s Bosnian cleaning lady, Darina. She is the only character who immediately sees Tartuffe for what he really is and acts as a bridge between the family and the audience. Fedori’s tart put downs are beautifully delivered and as the character literally and metaphorically clears up the family mess we are reminded that not all Muslims are like the central character.
Iqbal Khan directs with a fine sense of balance and ensures that both the satire and the more sit com like elements hit their marks with precision. The production comes across very well on the small screen and, if you’ve never tried any 17th century French comedy before, this would be a very good place to start. You will also be able to enjoy the musical elements which are central encompassing a trajectory from Bhangra to Black Sabbath with a healthy dose of rap which, if nothing else, indicates the original poetic nature of the text. This production has been a long while making it onto television/online but the concerns it highlights are still highly relevant in 2023. This is especially true at the end when the whole question of legal and illegal immigration comes well to the fore. Plus ça change – as Molière himself might once have said.
Production photos by Topher Mcgrillis
Tartuffe is available on BBC iPlayer; click here
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