During weeks three and four of my Shakespeare course we were focusing on Twelfth Night. (Henry V this past week and next, The Bears have spent the last few days declaiming ‘Once more unto the breach’ and proudly proclaiming themselves a ‘band of brothers’; goodness only knows what is going to happen when we reach ‘Exit pursued by a Bear’.) anyway, back to the point – Twelfth Night. One of the things we were asked to consider was what constitutes a comedy and what makes us laugh. Well, the general view in our family is that I was born without a funny bone because almost nothing makes me laugh. Oh, I can laugh because I’m happy, but laughing because I am amused almost never happens.
In fact, I think this might be because I was exposed to Shakespearean comedy from a very early age and the point that was being made on the course was that for Elizabethan audiences comedy was very much about structure. We start with a certain amount of chaos, proceed to stir things up even more and then in Act Five (not that they would have called it that) we miraculously manage to bring everything to a happy(ish) conclusion. Comedy describes the journey not the rib tickling sideshows along the way. I am still fascinated by how this, and other narrative structures, work out and obviously never got round to taking account of the funny bits along the way.
All this is by way of a preface to telling you that yesterday I went to Stratford to see not a Shakespearean Comedy but a retelling of Molière’s Tartuffe set among Birmingham’s British Pakistani community with Tartuffe as a fundamentalist Muslim preaching reform to the paterfamilias of a modern family who have adopted a British lifestyle – even Grandma, although she would never admit it – in an attempt to fleece them all of their money and possessions and the women of their honour as well. Now, I could see that this was a clever (possibly in the less than positive sense of that word; I haven’t quite decided yet) way of approaching the play to make it relevant to a current audience. Recasting the family maid, Dorine, as a Bosnian Muslim cleaning lady, Darina, was a stroke of genius and Michelle Bonnard was the star of the show. But, when everyone around me was laughing away, at times uproariously, I was sat there cringing because what was happening on stage was everything I would normally avoid. People, especially the aforementioned paterfamilias, were ranting and raving, making total fools of themselves and being blackmailed before our eyes and for the life of me I couldn’t, still can’t, see why this is supposed to be funny. All right, I go in knowing that this is a comedy and therefore also knowing that it will all come out right in the end. Tartuffe will get his comeuppance and family harmony will be restored. But, I’m still not sure why this makes it all right to laugh at people who are being duped. Perhaps it’s my Asperger’s getting in the way. I don’t know. I do know that it was one of the most uncomfortable afternoon’s I’ve spent in a long time.
My discomfort wasn’t helped by the fact that the play ended with a ‘message’. Now I don’t know the original well enough to be able to say whether or not it finishes with a warning about marginalising people because of the way they look. Perhaps someone can tell me. However, here Tartuffe’s final speeches preach the idea that it is impossible for someone who looks like him to make his way in British society by any other means than that which he has chosen. And I do mean preach. It was far too obvious an insert for it to have any real impact. And, I wasn’t certain quite what he meant. If he was referring specifically to his long beard then he might have been said to have a point. But, if he was just talking about British Muslims being unable to rise to positions of power then I surely can’t have been the only one who wanted to say “er – Home Secretary”?
I know that the problem is mine. Everyone else there was having a great time until the final message clearly made them uneasy. Not that their dis-ease lasted for long, mind you. The comedy police act turned up just in time to save the day and the laughs. They were straight out of a Brian Rix farce. Another form of humour I never really understood.
Why did I go? You may well ask. But I live in hope that one day there will be a flash of light and suddenly all will be revealed to me. I will be able to join in with the mirth around me and be one of the crowd. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen yesterday.