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Paul Vallely: Tartuffe is a 17th-century satire that speaks today

16 November 2018

An updated classic shows the dangers of extremism, says Paul Vallely

Topher McGrillis/RSC

A scene from Tartuffe

A scene from Tartuffe

THERE is always a danger when trying to update a classic. You can give Julius Caesar a red baseball cap bearing the words “Make Rome Great Again”, but the parallels between Shakespeare’s protagonist and the current occupant of the White House are always going to be limited. But, just occasionally, you find a match that is so filled with contemporary resonances that you dare to wonder whether the original has been improved on.

Molière’s celebrated satire on religious fanaticism, Tartuffe, has been plucked from 17th-century aristocratic France by the Royal Shakespeare Company and replanted in the prosperous Pakistani community in contemporary Birmingham. The result triumphantly mixes hilarious comedy with a critique of English attitudes to Islam that is penetrating and insightful.

Molière wrote in 1664, at a time when the Jesuits and the Jansenists vied with one another for the soul of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. The great satirist succeeded in alienating both groups, and the church establishment in general, to the point at which the Archbishop of Paris threatened to excommunicate anyone performing, seeing, or reading it in public or in private. Fortunately, the King, Louis XIV, liked it.

The play’s targets were the advocates of extreme piety called “directors of conscience”: lay and religious spiritual gurus who persuaded wealthy individuals to adopt austere interpretations of their faith. Jesuits accused Jansenists, who were steeped in an Augustinian misanthropy and shared Calvin’s views on predestination, of being pessimist Protestants in disguise. The puritanical Jansenists accused the Jesuits of a casuistry that abused reason to twist the commands of God to accommodate the interests of the worldly.

Our concerns today are different. So, the RSC version, by Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto — the writers of the Asian TV comedies Goodness Gracious Me and Citizen Khan — concern themselves with a different fault line. Their Tartuffe, whose full name is Tahir Taufiq Arsuf, is still a con man. The man he dupes, however, with his pious platitudes peppered with Qur’anic Arabic, stands for those drifting members of the Muslim community who are easy prey to the manipulation of extremists, real or counterfeit, whose activities can be so corrosive for any community.

Gupta and Pinto have great fun playing with Asian stereotypes — the domineering mother-in-law, the bombastic father, the rebellious son, and the clever but compliant daughter — but they also make some serious points about how religion can be abused.

There is a showstopping moment after Tartuffe has been exposed and arrested by the counter-terrorism police. Dropping his bogus Arabic accent, and speaking in broad Brummie, he hits the audience with a speech in which he asks what other options were left to him, “a poor uneducated Paki from Small Heath”. His bleak depiction of disadvantage and alienation is very moving. Then, with huge comic skill, the writers puncture their own poignancy when he adds: “I’m not an extremist, I’m a con man; Jacob Rees-Mogg is an extremist, why aren’t you arresting him?”

This is not an anti-religious play. It sees that even those who cannot tell the difference between a fakir and fake may be lost souls in search of authenticity. They just need to be warned, the family’s uproarious Bosnian Muslim maid, Darina, says. “Don’t let other peoples get between you and your God”.

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