U.K. Sets 'Tartuffe' In Birmingham's Pakistani Muslim Community

Oct 14, 2018
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Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company is currently staging Moliere'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 YouTube trailer for the production already signals its Moliere but not as we know it. Jeweled male fingers pound the leopard print steering wheel of a bright orange minivan. Tartuffe, the con man, is heading toward his next victims.

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BARKER: Here, Tartuffe is Tahir Taqfiq Arsuf, taking in the credulous head of a thoroughly modern Muslim family. That includes a rapping teenage son, his nonhijab-wearing sister, their new stepmother...

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MICHELLE BONNARD: (As Darina) I pull out the fridge and hover behind. That's why the Pervaiz family keep me on.

BARKER: ...And the family's canny Bosnian Muslim cleaning lady, a one-woman Greek chorus.

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BONNARD: (As Darina) They're coming. Don't worry. Apart from being immigrant and brown and Muslim, they are perfectly normal.

BARKER: It is the women - in particular, stepmother Amira - who have to somehow stop the patriarch from giving his fortune and his daughter to the lascivious Tartuffe, who even tries to talk Amira herself into bed.

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TAHIR TAQFIQ ARSUF: (As Tartuffe) I won't mention it to a soul, not even on Twitter.

SASHA BEHAR: (As Amira) What a gentleman.

BARKER: The characters make reference to ISIS and Brexit. The script plays with issues like radicalization and patriarchy while exploring and exploding stereotypes about British Muslims. At least 39 of Britain's homegrown Islamist terrorists have come from the Birmingham area. This production asks audiences to remember the 250,000 Muslims there who aren't terrorists.

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BARKER: Intermission. And members of the audience mingle. Helen Howe (ph) is a retired school principal.

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

BARKER: Her friend, Rosalind Anfilogoff (ph), a doctor, can't help noticing that the seats today are filled with Stratford's customary cohort of mature white people.

ROSALIND ANFILOGOFF: I'm wondering very much what a Muslim and perhaps younger population might make of it. We can laugh at it and think it's very funny. Will they feel the same? And I don't know the answer to that, but I would be fascinated to find out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This is Zainab and Amina.

BARKER: In a backstage dressing room, cast members Zainab Hasan and Amina Zia say young South Asians really enjoy the show. They get all the cultural in-jokes. Zainab Hasan plays the daughter, Mariam.

ZAINAB HASAN: While some people might say, well, it's sensitive setting it in this community, it's important to set it in this community because it's relevant. But I think what it's also doing is it's challenging people's preconceived ideas of who Muslim people are.

BARKER: And it's not as if Muslims have the monopoly on false prophets, Amina Zia says.

AMINA ZIA: Yes, there are sham clerics, not just in the Muslim community...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Thank you.

ZIA: Right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: A hundred percent.

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

BARKER: It's also about women grappling with patriarchy and overcoming male domination. As one of the co-adaptors of the play has remarked, who knew 300 years later that would still be an issue.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in Stratford-upon-Avon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.