Putting a Wild New Spin on Tartuffe: The Imposter!

Playwright Joel Tan chats with us about the joys and difficulties of adapting Molière’s satirical classic for the Singapore stage, and why the play remains so profoundly relevant today.

How did this project — Tartuffe: The Imposter, with Wild Rice — come about?

Glen Goei, our director, has wanted to stage a production of Tartuffe in Singapore for years. The first I heard of it was in 2020, at the start of the pandemic or just before. At the time, they were working with an adaptation from the 1960s, and Glen was thinking of opening the show with a musical number. He called and asked me if I would write the lyrics. They ultimately shelved that project, but that’s how I first got brought in.

Then, a couple of years down the line, Glen and Ivan Heng decided that they would like to do their own adaptation of the play. Ivan asked if I would do it, and I said yes because I’ve always been fascinated by both Molière and the process of adaptation, and Tartuffe cracks me up.

When you started work on adapting this classic play, which is close to 400 years old, what kind of research did you do?

I read a couple of contemporary adaptations, and one from the 1950s and, in the end, the version I referred to the most was a really old and musty English translation from a Complete Molière that I found on my bookshelf – I’d bought it at the Strand bookshop in NYC years ago but never opened it. Goes to show it’s worth collecting books! I also read up on Molière and his life.

More broadly, I thought about what made the play so controversial in its time, and how that would translate today. How do we bring some of that danger back into this production?

What did you find most challenging about adapting Tartuffe for modern-day Singapore?

Constantly second-guessing the decision not to set it in Singapore – which no doubt a lot of people will find odd, and I’m prepared to hear that strand of criticism, but I think there are good reasons.

Also, resisting the temptation not to set it in verse. Molière wrote in a very rigid rhyming metre, and there was a very vain part of me that wanted to rise to that challenge. I wrote the first couple of scenes in free verse, but found rapid-fire dialogue more exciting in the end. Anyway, English doesn’t rhyme as easily as French and, after a while, you run the risk of sounding like Dr. Seuss!

What was the most fun/rewarding thing?

Not setting it in modern-day Singapore lol. It freed me up to write the play in a kind of English that gestures towards the artifice and relentless word-play of the original. Singapore English can be all those things, obviously, but, at its most natural, it wants to be pretty dry and rapid and siap. The English I chose is very fruity and sticky, full of traps.

What is your favourite thing about this particular production of Tartuffe?

A lot of people think of Tartuffe as a farce, as a comedy, which is true, of course. But there’s also quite a lot of serious and disturbing drama embedded in the play as well. And I love how this production veers from comedy to drama and back again at a breakneck speed. While watching rehearsals, I’ve felt like I’m being tugged in and out of various states of existence during the show, and that’s really exciting for me.

I’ve also really enjoyed teasing out some of the feminist undertones of the original play and putting them a bit more front-and centre.

(L-R) Joel with director Glen Goei, as well as cast members
Ivan Heng and Dennis Sofian, at our recent Tartuffe table read

This adaptation of Tartuffe feels very personal to you. What themes were you particularly interested in exploring, and what do you hope audiences take away from watching the show?

The major theme of the play is obviously religious hypocrisy, which looms large throughout. But what is more interesting to me is what happens when you capitulate to those hypocrites, when you let them determine the practices of your household, and allegorically, your neighbourhood, your town, your entire political system. Molière argues that it’s an incredibly destructive and de-humanising force. I think the resonances of this in Singapore are pretty clear.

And, actually, that’s why I didn’t want to set it in modern-day Singapore – because, to me, there’s something humbling and sobering about a French play reaching out from the 17th century and having so much to say about us. There’s something, for me, in the theatricality of that four-century gap that feels productive. I wanted to preserve that sense as much as possible. There are some major departures, but mostly it’s a pretty close, practically scene-by-scene adaptation.

Obviously, the fact that Tartuffe still resonates today is because hypocrisy follows human beings around. But the more you learn about the conditions around which the play was written and produced in the 1660s – so tied up with questions of patronage, censorship, and moral outrage – the more it begins to feel like a play that could’ve been written about us, last week.  

Tell us about what you’ve been up to, outside of Tartuffe. How can audiences connect with you and what do you have coming up in the next few months?

I’ve been SO BUSY, who would’ve thought we would ever be this busy again? And yet, the other day, I had to go get an ECG done because I thought I was having a heart attack, but actually it was just anxiety from work!

I’ve been busy leading writers’ groups for emerging writers, researching the new writing landscape in Singapore with Centre 42, and working on my own plays. I also make a podcast with my best friend, Kishan; it’s called T42, and we overshare about our lives and talk about anything we want. I’ve also been working with a super fab art collective towards an exhibition in the middle of the year. It’s fun because we get to go on long walks in ulu places and make rice wine.

And, in the next few months, I’m heading back to London to attend rehearsals for my play, no particular order, which is being staged there in June! I’m totally and blissfully off social media so the only way to connect with me is to write letters or send smoke signals, or maybe email me idk.

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