Kabul's Rah-e-Sabz theatre company ought to have been staging their new play in Afghanistan. A modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, it is set in Kabul, flavoured with traditional Afghani folk music and written in Dari, a form of Farsi. Instead, for the past two months, the group has been living and rehearsing in Bangalore, where the play premiered last week. It will travel to Mumbai next.
The truth is, this Afghan version of The Comedy of Errors, a rib-tickling farce about estranged identical twins and mistaken identities, has an unfortunate history. The play was commissioned last year by London's Globe to Globe theatre festival as part of a multilingual Shakespeare series. Corinne Jaber, the play's Paris-based director, selected local actors and musicians, and rehearsals began. Then, in August 2011, a suicide bombing at the British Council in Kabul, left their rehearsal space in ruins.
As their project ground to a halt, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations stepped in, inviting Rah-e-Sabz to rehearse and perform in India. "We hope to perform in Afghanistan some day, but the situation is dangerous right now," says Roger Granville, the British co-producer of the play.
The play is being staged in India with English subtitles. After Mumbai, the group will tour Pune and Delhi before heading to London in June.
"Practicing the arts is difficult in Afghanistan," says Abdul Haq, a puppeteer from Kabul and lead actor in the play. Ten years ago, when Haq, 29, decided to study acting at Kabul University, his family was upset and afraid. The Islamic fundamentalist Taliban, which considers dancing and drama un-Islamic and corrupting, had just been ousted from power but its influence lingered.
Haq followed his dream, however, completing a Master's in acting and puppetry at Berlin's Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts. He now runs a travelling puppet theatre company that stages shows for children across Afghanistan. "We draw our stories from Afghan folklore but avoid depicting conflict and violence," says Haq. "Our children have already seen too much of it, and we want to heal their minds." Subjects that artists in Afghanistan avoid are war and religion, Haq adds.
The Comedy of Errors, for instance, was picked over Richard II. "The Afghans did not want to do a play about civil war," says play director Jaber, who has been working with Afghan theatre groups since she first visited the country as a tourist seven years ago. "There is very little art and theatre in Afghanistan, because they have no money for culture," Jaber adds. Most groups are supported by foreign organisations such as the British Council and Goethe Institute.
While there is no actual censorship, there is a lot of self-censorship because artists don't want to anger the wrong people, adds Jaber, and this in turn is frustrating for them.
For Haq, however, this is not an issue. "Politics is everywhere," he says. "I just want to create a new generation of Afghans, through my theatre."