INTERVIEW: Asif Khan on playing Tartuffe at the RSC

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Asif Khan in the role of Tartuffe at the RSC

‘It is a gift of a role’

Actor, writer and producer Asif Khan takes the lead role in the RSC’s new adaptation of Molieré’s 17th-century satire Tartuffe. He tells Gill Sutherland about playing the conman in this classic tale, which has been relocated to Birmingham to tell the story of Muslim family the Pervaizs.

You debuted at the RSC in 2017 playing Captain Jack in The Hypocrite — Richard Bean’s tremendous romp — did you have a thought that you would like to come back?

Yes, I think anyone who has been to drama school has an ambition of performing on-stage at the RSC, just being in the building! You are supported by such a great team — from movement to voice — and the fact that Gregory [artistic director Doran] is breaking boundaries with the plays and casting and I’m full of admiration for what he’s trying to do here.

How did this adaptation and your role come about?

As far as I know Greg came up with the idea of setting it in a Pakistani Muslim community and then asked the two writers — Richard and Anil — to work on a draft, and then Iqbal Khan joined as the director. I was initially asked to do a week’s workshop in London when they had produced a draft. We workshopped the script, played around, introduced some new ideas. We presented a reading to an invited RSC audience and it must have gone well…

I’m thrilled to be playing Tartuffe, it’s a gift of a role, he’s a villain but so enjoyable.

Had you encountered the play before?

I knew of it. Before I went into the workshop I read the original version a few times, it’s good to know what the structure of the original is and what Molieré was trying to hit; and see if you can do the same kind of thing with this.

For example when Tartuffe first comes on, Molieré wants to make it clear straight away that he is a crook. So the audience know who he is and then they can play along with him.

It’s like Richard III playing with the audience, they are aware of Tartuffe’s tactics. The whole fun is that Imran, the head of the family, is unaware of what is happening to him, how he is being manipulated.

It’s obviously daring to set this tale in the Pakistani community with Tartuffe recast as a Muslim holy man, who turns out to be a conman. How did that sit with you?

With this I was initially unsure because I am a practicing Muslim; and the way Tartuffe looks, his image, with the long beard, the salwar kameez and Mosque hat, it is really playing into almost that negative stereotype. Tartuffe has used that image for his own advantage. The audience might worry ‘oh can we laugh at this?’ — so it is a slightly dangerous line. But I want the audience to relax and laugh!

For 90 per cent of the time you don’t know who this Tartuffe actually is — he’s a shapeshifter and adapts to being in whatever environment — one minute he’ll be a stern cleric, the next one of the lads.

You have faith — are you conflicted by anything in the play, is it anti-religious at all?

No, I’m not conflicted, there’s so much balance in the play. It targets those people that are using religion to their own advantage; people who are practicing religion in the wrong way. Tartuffe uses it as a front, a trick.

It does confront a lot of issues around the world even though the first performance was in 1664. There’s so much that’s explored in the play, it confronts issues about religion, race and misogyny. I don’t feel offended by anything in the play. The writers were really sensitive, they checked with me about the references to the Quran, for example.

Every community has its flaws; it’s right to fully explore the good and bad without restrictions, and that’s what the play does. It’s fundamentally just about a family. It also portrays a diverse range of Muslims — white convert Khalil, Bosnian cleaner Darina, who breaks all stereotypes of what a female Muslim might be; and there’s Amira, a strong confident Muslim woman.

Besides being hugely entertaining, is there an underlining message? What is this Tartuffe saying about multicultural Britain?

It doesn’t explicitly say this is what we want you to think. It’s more raising issues — so for instance Darina challenges the son Damee about why men feel they have to defend a woman’s honour, why can’t she just defend her own? There’s various moments like that, but it’s not lecturing. It lets the audience go away with their own thoughts.

The RSC audience does tend to be white and middle class — how are you making sure you have a more diverse audience?

This play is set in Birmingham in a Pakistani Muslim community, and we really want that community to come to the RSC, and so the company are exploring various ways of doing that. It is tricky to attract people who have perhaps have never been to the theatre. My community is not very theatre-going, especially the young; it’s not something that the Asian community do, but I do hope this encourages them. I think word of mouth is good — if an Asian family come and see the show and feel represented and feel connected with these characters then hopefully they will go and tell someone else and they will come along…And I have been seeing a diverse audience.

Some of the gags are very cultural and I’m sure the Muslim Pakistani audience will appreciate the humour.

Tell us a bit about your past, how did you get into acting?

I was born and brought up in Bradford and enjoyed acting at school. I went to the University of Bradford to do a degree in electronic imaging and media communications — very sensible! A major shift occurred there when I entered the doors on Theatre on the Mill at the university, I did lots of shows and threw myself into as much as I could do. I worked with a beautiful bunch of people who were passionate about what they do. I knew I wanted to act and went on to RADA. It was the best three years and learned to stretch myself.

Do you get any sense of acting being a privileged white world?

I think it still is. It kind of feels like that; there are more obstacles in your way; it’s a bit harder to be seen as eligible for every role, so it’s hard to break through. But there’s definitely more diversity now, not just among actors but producers and playwrights. We live in a diverse country and that needs to be represented.

What’s next after this?

I wrote my play Combustion [first performed in 2015] basically because my voice as a British Muslim didn’t feel represented and so it covered quite sensitive themes. The whole process has been a great experience and I would like to do more of that; I’ve got a few commissions: for Watford Palace Theatre, Rifco Arts and Channel 4. Family life is also quite busy; I have a one-year-old son Nooh.

Tartuffe plays at the Swan Theatre until 23rd February. Book tickets at www.rsc.org.uk/tartuffe