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Shakespeare in Dari, set in Kabul, staged in India

An Afghani adaptation of The Comedy of Errors is being staged in Mumbai on Saturday. The story of how it got here is an intriguing tale of diplomacy and terror.

art and culture Updated: May 13, 2012 02:33 IST
Aarefa Johari

The 20 members of Kabul’s Rah-e-Sabz (Path of hope) 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 theatre group has been living and rehearsing in Bangalore, where the play premiered last week. It will travel to Mumbai next, where it will be staged at Prithvi Theatre on Saturday.

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 Afghani actors and musicians through auditions, and rehearsals began. Then, in August 2011, a suicide bomber attacked the British Council in Kabul, leaving the theatre group’s 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 stage the play in India.

“We hope to perform our play in Afghanistan some day, but the situation is dangerous right now,” said Roger Granville, the British co-producer of the play, responding to questions via email from Bangalore.

The play is being staged in India with English subtitles. After Mumbai, the group will tour Pune and Delhi before heading to London for Globe to Globe in June.

“Practicing the arts is difficult in Afghanistan,” says Abdul Haq, a puppeteer from Kabul and lead actor in The Comedy of Errors.

Ten years ago, when Haq decided to study acting at Kabul University for instance, 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 degree 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, 29, who spoke to HT over the phone. “Our children have already seen too much of it, and we want to heal their minds.”

Other subjects that most artists in Afghanistan avoid are war and religion, Haq adds.

The Comedy of Errors, for instance, was picked over Shakespeare’s Richard II. “The Afghans did not want to do a play about civil war,” says play director Corinne Jaber, a Paris-based theatre artiste 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 theatre 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 help create a new generation of Afghans, through my theatre.”