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Tartuffe review at Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘bold, contemporary adaptation’

Sasha Behar and Asif Khan. Photo: Topher McGrillis
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Opening with a bone-rattling blast of Black Sabbath, it’s clear from the outset that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new adaptation of Moliere’s savage satire of religious insincerity is taking an appropriately irreverent tack.

Written by Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto (co-creators of niche high-fantasy radio comedy ElvenQuest), the show shifts the action to present-day Birmingham, where cynical conman Tartuffe – full name Tahir Taufiq Arsuf – inveigles his way into the Pakistani Muslim community with false piety and flattering patter.

It is an unarguably provocative transposition, and there is real value, given the current political climate, in re-examining both the power and the appeal of a charlatan pedalling populism for personal gain. Despite the promising angle, though, the script remains a farce at heart, and every insightful satirical jab is muffled by daft mugging or a wearyingly easy gag.

Director Iqbal Khan gives the production his signature bold staging. Dancers erupt into the space, singing breaks out at unexpected moments, and his cast members circle one another like patient predators. A big first act set piece sees Raj Bajaj, as dim but dutiful son Damee, rapping away his frustrations, his skilful delivery and faultless flow stopping the sequence from becoming cringe-making.

Asif Khan plays the titular role with perhaps too much swagger to fully convince as a masterful manipulator, but he’s nevertheless a compelling Tartuffe, purring and rolling his eyes as he dances circles – and at one point dribbles a basketball – around his victims.

Chief among them, Simon Nagra gives household patriarch Imran some pleasing depth, projecting a bright and jolly persona until he is contradicted, at which point he flies into impotent rages or helpless self-recrimination. Meanwhile, Michelle Bonnard stands out as Bosnian maid Darina. Serving as both the family’s cleaner and their fiercely outspoken moral compass, she snaps satisfyingly between flippant comic asides and stinging rebukes.

These abrupt changes of tone are underscored by brief but intricate bursts of music from composer Sarah Sayeed. A live accompaniment pairs cello with sitar, lilting ululations with breathy beatboxing, creating a melting pot of classical and contemporary influences.

Bretta Gerecke’s design continues the theme, dressing the stage with glitzy baroque furniture, all silver foils and magenta silk. But the space is demarcated by a tall, minimalist scaffold of fluorescent tubes, angled to evoke a sloping roof or, at times, a mosque’s minarets. Lightboxes pop into life in the background, showing family photos at first, and later, as Tartuffe’s influence grows, shots of Mecca.

While he insists that others make outward shows of faith, the fraudster slips into skinny jeans and leopard-print pants. It isn’t the subtlest indictment of hypocrisy, but neither was Moliere’s.

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Bold adaptation of the classic farce trades stinging satire for contemporary resonance