Award-winning writers Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto give a candid insight into the commissioning process of Tartuffe
Sometime in early Summer 2017, Gregory Doran (Artistic Director of the RSC), was struck down with a form of short lived but violent brain fever, causing him to lose his grasp on reality and filling his mind with outlandish and dangerous delusions. I say this, not based on any formal medical diagnosis, but because it was around that time that myself and my writing partner, Richard Pinto, were approached to see if we fancied adapting the Molière classic Tartuffe for the RSC's Winter 2018 season. Tartuffe, or The Hypocrite, as any fule kno, is Molière’s 17th century French farce, deemed too dangerous to perform in its time, but now recognised as one of the great works of classical theatre. And it seemed that what the Artistic Director felt this play needed was a modern-day version, set amongst the Pakistani Muslim community in Birmingham. And that the people to attempt such a feat should be two comedy writers working in TV, with no background in either literature or French and with virtually zero experience of working in the theatre (pace my legendary J.B. Biggley in Chesterton Community College’s 1983 production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying). Clearly this man was in need of urgent medical assistance.
Fortunately, our combined 50 years experience of working in “the business” has taught us to: 1) never turn down a meeting and 2) never be too proud to exploit signs of mental weakness in a potential employer. We decided to take up the challenge – I mean how hard could it be? Obviously, we would need to familiarise ourselves with the original text first. After several minutes of intensive research, we discovered that Tartuffe was written using the typically 17th century French Alexandrine syllabic poetic metre, whereby each line consists of 12 syllables with a medial caesura dividing the lines into two hemistichs of six syllables each, and the whole work was made up of 981 pairs of rhyming couplets. Also, translations were available.
The lovely people at the RSC (they do all seem to be lovely) furnished us with a copy and even gave us an actual French person as a Dramaturg. She assured us that we had carte blanche (told you she was French) to do whatever we wanted with the piece. Story, characters, language – it was all up for grabs. This was great to hear, since we had a sneaking suspicion that what passed for scandalous and hilarious in Paris in the 1660s might be less so nearly 400 years later. So, I think it would be fair to say that we read the original with a sceptical eye. However, a couple of things quickly became apparent. Firstly, we were not going to attempt to do the couplets. Secondly, this Molière bloke knew a bit about story. And characters. And comedy.
There has to be an edge
As we set about producing a first draft it also became clear that updating the play and setting it amongst a British Pakistani Muslim community was a pretty good idea. Much of this play’s power comes from the fact that it is playing in an area that makes the audience a bit uncomfortable. There has to be an edge, a line that everyone is wondering whether you are going to cross. The great thing about that tension in a comedy is you can simultaneously diffuse it and ride it for laughs. One of the privileges and purposes of comedy is to go into those areas that society is uncomfortable with and poke them with a stick.
Almost a year after our first meeting we are now four drafts in. We have a director, the very clever and very charming Iqbal Khan (surely not everyone in theatre is this nice?), a Producer, a Designer, and the makings of a wonderful cast. We’ve even had a week-long workshop, where we got to read the script, discuss the script, make cuts and changes to the script and read the script again. All with proper actors. The process is proving to be a real pleasure, and, with every draft, we discover more about the original. The robustness of the story and the characters is a joy but also each scene has a beautifully crafted structure serving both the comedy and the drama. We just have to join the dots. Iqbal has even persuaded us to have a go at some couplets.
So, it turns out that Greg Doran may not be running around Stratford in the throes of a neurological meltdown, like a latter-day George III, but instead, is a very clever guy with a sharp eye for good theatre and lovely hair. Probably how he got the job.