UK launches ‘Tartuffe’ in Birmingham’s Pakistani Muslim community : NPR

In a new version of Molière Tartuffe, the original production’s “dangerous priest” villain is now portrayed as a manipulative imam who preys on a Muslim family.



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Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company is currently staging Molière’s 17th-century farce “Tartuffe” about a fake Christian holy man who preys on a prosperous French family. But this production is set in modern Birmingham and its Pakistani Muslim community. Vicki Barker reports from Stratford-upon-Avon.

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VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: The production’s YouTube trailer already flags its Molière, but not as we know it. Jeweled male fingers tap the leopard print steering wheel of a bright orange van. Tartuffe, the crook, heads for his next victims.

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BARKER: Here, Tartuffe is Tahir Taqfiq Arsuf, who welcomes the gullible head of a resolutely modern Muslim family. This includes a teenage son who raps, his sister who doesn’t wear a hijab, their new stepmom…

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MICHELLE BONNARD: (As Darina) I pull out the fridge and hover behind it. That’s why the Pervaiz family is keeping me.

BARKER: …And the family’s cunning Bosnian Muslim housekeeper, a one-woman Greek choir.

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BONNARD: (as Darina) They’re coming. Do not worry. In addition to being immigrants, browns and Muslims, they are perfectly normal.

BARKER: It’s the women – especially stepmother Amira – who somehow have to stop the patriarch from giving his fortune and daughter to the lascivious Tartuffe, who even tries to convince Amira herself to go to bed.

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TAHIR TAQFIQ ARSUF: (Like Tartuffe) I won’t tell anyone, not even on Twitter.

SASHA BEHAR: (As Amira) What a gentleman.

BARKER: The characters refer to ISIS and Brexit. The storyline plays with issues such as radicalization and patriarchy while exploring and exploding stereotypes about British Muslims. At least 39 of Britain’s Islamist terrorists are from the Birmingham area. This production asks the audience to remember the 250,000 Muslims who are not terrorists.

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BARKER: Intermission. And members of the public mingle. Helen Howe (ph) is a retired headteacher.

HELEN HOWE: I think it’s very clever. It’s very topical, but it hits the mark in terms of sending a message.

BARKER: Her friend, Rosalind Anfilogoff (ph), a doctor, can’t help but notice that the seats today are taken by Stratford’s usual cohort of mature whites.

ROSALIND ANFILOGOFF: I really wonder what a Muslim and maybe a younger population would think about it. You can laugh about it and think it’s very funny. Will they feel the same? And I don’t know the answer to that, but I’d be fascinated to know.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This is Zainab and Amina.

BARKER: In a backstage box, cast members Zainab Hasan and Amina Zia say young South Asians are really enjoying the show. They get all the cultural jokes. Zainab Hasan plays the daughter, Mariam.

ZAINAB HASAN: While some people might say, well, it’s sensible to place it in this community, it’s important to place it in this community because it’s relevant. But I think what it also does is challenge people’s preconceptions of who Muslims are.

BARKER: And it’s not like Muslims have a monopoly on false prophets, says Amina Zia.

AMINA ZIA: Yes, there are false religious, not only in the Muslim community…

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Thank you.

ZIA: Is that it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: One hundred percent.

ZIA: It’s about control and power and abuse of power using religion as a shield.

BARKER: It’s also about women struggling with patriarchy and overcoming male domination. As one of the co-adaptors in the play remarked, who knew 300 years later that this would still be a problem.

For NPR News, I’m Vicki Barker in Stratford-upon-Avon.

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