Director Iqbal Khan discusses setting Tartuffe in the Muslim community of Birmingham, his hometown.

When director Iqbal Khan brings Molière's satirical play Tartuffe to the Swan Theatre this autumn, it'll have come a long way from the original French setting. Iqbal has transferred the play to Birmingham, into the community he himself grew up in.

"I’m a Brummie and born into a Pakistani Islamic family, so this feels like a very personal journey to undertake," says Iqbal. "I was excited by the potency of setting the play in a modern Islamic family and in a community under pressure, where religion is so problematically the thing that identifies them.

"For Molière’s satire to bite (and the jokes to hit!) the religious context has to have an appropriate intensity. There aren’t many other places better suited to the DNA of the play than Birmingham and the heterogenous Pakistani community thriving there."

A view of Birmingham New Street before the rebuild.
Birmingham New Street station before its rebuild.
Photo by Daniel Morris via Wikimedia Commons © Daniel Morris Browse and license our images

A changing city

Iqbal's vision of the city incorporates both his memories of growing up there and of seeing the changes that have taken place when he returns to visit friends and family. "I remember Birmingham as being a wonderfully easy place to live between communities. My extended family was a mix of generations and stories. All were grateful to this country for allowing them opportunities and, yet, most had struggled, with profound humility, to make the journey here and work to make a life for their children. I remember Brummies as having a warmth and humour that is irresistible. When I left at the beginning of the '90s, it was a city that was shifting rapidly, as new communities made their homes there.

"I also remember its greyness - the old New Street station and Bullring - and my desire to get away and explore the world beyond. How I joy in seeing the innovation that has come into the city subsequently and how it has developed almost out of recognition." 

The side of the Selfridges' building in Birmingham, a curved wall covered with silver circles.
The iconic Selfridges' building in the centre of Birmingham.
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Authentic Birmingham

Iqbal hopes the play will be honest and sensitive to the world it represents. Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto, the writers of this adaptation "have written many times about the British Asian experience and, most recently, specifically in Birmingham", bringing that experience to the show.

So is Iqbal's Tartuffe a specifically Brummie play? "I hope Birmingham audiences will identify with the characters on stage. It is absolutely essential that, whatever the extremity of pain or humour there is onstage, that everyone feels totally real. I hope Birmingham audiences will enjoy hearing the range of voices that exist in that community and delight in the musicality and humour of the dialogue."

Beyond Birmingham

The play has a broader scope, too. "It’s a great story. It’s an important story and a story that is told with enormous fun and surprise. I hope it will speak to a very specific anxiety in the Birmingham community, and beyond. The anxiety of influence. Why do people believe what they believe and appear to do what they do? How different are ‘they’ to ‘us’? And, ultimately, how much like ‘us’ are ‘they’? How much is the crazy stuff that happens in this great play the crazy stuff that happens to Pakistanis, to Brummies, to people of all races and all creeds?"

What to expect

With rehearsals underway, Iqbal has high expectations for Tartuffe. He wants "a naughty and nuanced version of the play, that will tease, thrill and I hope challenge audiences."

Tartuffe plays in the Swan Theatre from 7 September to 23 February.

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