(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/18; via Pam Green; Photo: Agile update … Keira Knightley and Damian Lewis in Martin Crimp’s 2009 version of The Misanthrope at the Comedy theatre, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)
Despite some clever reimaginings of Tartuffe, UK stages remain depressingly inattentive to one of the greatest playwrights
In France the 400th anniversary of Molière’s birth is being celebrated in a big way. In Britain it has been greeted with a deafening silence. But then we have always been slightly wary of Molière. It is partly that we lack the histrionic tradition that led CE Montague to write that watching French actors play Molière was “like turning over a portfolio of old and choice theatrical prints”. It is also the difficulty of translation: I can think of a handful of good ones – including Tony Harrison’s The Misanthrope, Christopher Hampton’s Don Juan and Ranjit Bolt’s The School for Wives – but many that are rough without being ready.
We seem much happier doing adaptations and one play that comes up repeatedly is Tartuffe. It is not hard to see why: hypocrisy, especially if it is religious, is always with us. Even Shakespeare jokes about it in Twelfth Night when Feste, donning a curate’s robe, says: “I would I were the first that ever dissembled in such a gown.” But Molière’s Tartuffe is much the greatest play on the subject and has prompted any number of transpositions: the two best I have seen both made use, in radically different ways, of Asian culture.
Jatinder Verma, founder of Tara Arts, did a remarkable National Theatre mobile production back in 1990. Verma discovered that in 1667, just after Molière wrote the first version of Tartuffe, a French traveller, François Bernier, was in India and was struck by the omnipresence of wandering holy men known as fakirs. “Heaven help the family,” wrote Bernier, “that does not give them a good welcome even though everyone knows they have eyes only for the women of the family.” Since Molière’s Tartuffe uses his religiosity to conquer Orgon’s wife, house and wealth, that gave Verma the cue for an Indian Tartuffe.
The result wittily reminded us that Molière’s work was anchored in popular tradition with Verma deploying Kathak dance and Khayal music. But he retained Molière’s plot: the duped Parisian bourgeois, Orgon, became a brocaded Mogul and Tartuffe, wonderfully played by Nizwar Karanj, a lecherous, shaven-headed guru in a saffron dhoti. Far from being mangled Molière, this was proof of the play’s classic status.
It also demonstrated that, if you are going to reimagine a play, it’s no use tinkering at the edges: you have to find a precise social parallel that works on every level. Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto did just that when in 2018 they came up with an RSC Tartuffe that set the play among a family of Birmingham-based British-Pakistani Muslims. This did justice to Molière’s complexity while tackling contemporary issues. Here Orgon was a guilt-ridden businessman anxious to return to his Muslim roots and Tartuffe an aberrant outsider rather than a genuine product of Islam. But perhaps the shrewdest touch was to turn Molière’s maid into a Bosnian Muslim and authorial spokesperson: she capped Tartuffe’s quotes from the Qur’an about female modesty by arguing that there was nothing in it to prove that women should cover their hair or their heads.