The RSC are bringing Moliére’s classic Tartuffe right into 21stcentury Birmingham with this brand new version by BAFTA and Emmy-Award winning writers Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto.
After writing hit TV shows such as The Office, Goodness Gracious Me, and The Kumars, this farcical play is set right in the heart of Birmingham’s Asian community. I spoke to Michelle Bonnard, real-life Brummie and actor taking on the role of Darina in this production.
“The play is larger than life but also touches on things that are relevant today,” Michelle said. “It feels like a modern day contemporary Birmingham.” The original story of Tartuffe is about a fake priest who works his way into a family to take all their money. In this version, Tartuffe is a man posing as a very religious Muslim man, but he is a fraud and takes advantage of the Pervaiz family.
“The household is headed up by Imran Pervaiz, who is played by Simon Nagro. Simon is the only other Brummie in the cast and knows exactly what it is like to be an Asian man in Birmingham,” Michelle said. “The language of the play lends itself to Birmingham very well. This adaptation has jokes about Birmingham and the whole family have Birmingham accents.”
Michelle plays the role of Darina who is a Bosnian Muslim and the family’s cleaner. “She has lived in Birmingham for the last twenty years. She is actually a refugee from the Bosnian war and came over to settle in Birmingham,” Michelle explained. Birmingham is her home and she has grown up to be like an older sister to the children in the family.”
“She is this extraordinary, independent, fierce Brummie.”
This production is elevated into modern day with the humour and language. With references to Twitter and hashtags, it’s a comedy that is completely relevant today. “The writers Richard Pinto and Anil Gupta have done a complete translation and it is 100% contemporary,” Michelle said. “You wouldn’t recognise the original unless you already knew the story, and the story of the original is proving to be completely timeless. The issues the writers look at is really modern as there is lots of talk about women, honour and the power of women.”
When Michelle first approached the role of Darina, she wanted to work out who she was in relation to everyone else and how that was going to help the play. “I looked out at her story as a whole and worked out how I can make her funny, and what characteristics I can bring out in the story,” she said. “I wanted to make her three dimensional with contradictions inside her, so I did lots of accent research, watched lots of films and even went to a couple of Bosnian evenings in London just to get a sense of what it’s really like to be a Bosnian refugee.”
Once getting to grips with the character, then the challenge is to find the humour within. “It was great because the writers were a huge part of the rehearsal process,” Michelle said. “They worked with me and the director to bring that comedy out more and more. Darina has an extraordinary relationship with the audience as she is the one that communicates with them, so I really had to focus on that engagement.”
Michelle is ecstatic to be working with the RSC as it was a childhood dream of hers. “I did my work experience at the RSC when I was 16 because I knew that I wanted to be an actor,” she said. “I always considered the RSC to be a home theatre, and it’s amazing to be doing a Brummie play in a theatre I consider to be one from home.
“It’s so easy for people from Birmingham to get to Stratford-Upon-Avon and it’s been great because there have been members of the audience from Birmingham that have absolutely loved it. It feels like a piece of theatre that has been written for lots of different groups of people but it’s so nice to recognise yourself on stage and I think if anyone comes from Birmingham there are jokes for them.”
Describing it as a real ‘joy’ Michelle gushed about how brilliant it is to be working in a space like the Swan theatre. “It’s such an intimate theatre but it has such scale to it,” she said. “Being able to hold that stage and talk to an audience is just magical. To have a play like this and to be doing it at the RSC just doesn’t get much better.”
Emphasising that it really is a play for everyone, Michelle remarked that there is no question that this show is accessible for an audience that don’t necessarily go to the theatre all the time, or even if they’ve never been to the theatre before at all. “I think people will come and see themselves reflected on stage, they’ll understand the story and they’ll be totally engaged,” she said. “It’s about families, trust and faith, but also it’s just ridiculously funny.”
Tartuffe is on at the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until the 23rd of February, tickets and information can be found here.