Shakespeare's Afghan journey to the Globe

Director Corinne Jaber explains why Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors is relevant to modern-day Afghanistan

Ten actors are hoping to redefine Shakespeare - and the public perception of Afghanistan - by taking part in one of the most ambitious theatre festivals of all time. Harriet Shawcross and Tahir Qadiry report.

In an unmarked guest house, on a quiet side street in Kabul, two young Afghans are reading Shakespeare for the first time.

One is an Afghan soap star, who acts to support her husband and seven children. The other is just 21 and Googled Shakespeare before she arrived.

Start Quote

Director Corrine Jaber

The fact that the play opens with a father searching for his lost family will speak to people here.”

End Quote Corrine Jaber Director of Comedy of Errors

They are part of an extraordinary attempt to stage Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors in Dari at The Globe theatre in London.

In April they will leave Afghanistan, and their families, for the first time and travel to London to perform in Shakespeare's historic theatre.

To mark the Cultural Olympiad the Globe is staging each of Shakespeare's plays - in 37 different languages. These include The Tempest from Bangladesh, Cymbeline from South Sudan and Love's Labour's Lost in British Sign Language.

The six-week festival culminates in an Afghan Comedy of Errors.

The production is masterminded by director Corinne Jaber, who once performed with the RSC and has transposed Shakespeare's early farce to modern-day Afghanistan.

Lost family

The play opens in Kabul airport, with a father returning to his home land in search of his missing sons, who were lost - not in a shipwreck as Shakespeare intended - but in a sandstorm.

Ms Jaber believes Shakespeare has particular relevance to Afghanistan. She explains: "The fact that the play opens with a father searching for his lost family will speak to people here. After 30 years of war people do return looking for lost relatives - and family is so important, you just can't exist without your family.

Theatre manager Sharpoor Sadaqat Mr Sadaqat said foreign directors needed to respect local traditions

"Renaissance England is much closer to contemporary Afghanistan than anywhere in Europe. All the cultural codes within Shakespeare's plays have a meaning in Afghanistan, and of course poetry is an integral part of Afghan culture."

This is not Ms Jaber's first foray into Shakespeare in Afghanistan. In 2005 she directed Love's Labour's Lost in an ancient garden in Kabul. The production was hailed as radical: men and women held hands and women appeared, at times, without head scarves.

But she insists she has not come to Afghanistan as a revolutionary. "I'm not a feminist. I am not doing this to make these women 'free'. I am just taking care of what I need to do artistically to tell a story."

Death threats

One of the greatest challenges has been finding women willing to participate.

Of those women that took part in Love's Labour's Lost, two have have had to flee the country.

One is now living in Canada and will appear in the Comedy or Errors, alongside two local actresses from Kabul.

Shakespeare Olympiad

  • Macbeth will be treated to a Tunisian interpretation with a story of a despot and his wife with Leila and Ben - A Bloody History
  • The Henry VI trilogy of war and nationalism will be performed by three Balkan companies from Albania, Serbia and Macedonia
  • Cymbeline is performed by a specially-formed company from South Sudan
  • Love's Labour's Lost is a British sign language performance
  • The Merchant of Venice, a play sometimes accused of anti-Semitism will be performed by an Israeli company
  • Hamlet will be performed in Lithuanian
  • Richard III will be performed by a major Chinese company

The auditions are not advertised, and Ms Jaber relies upon word of mouth to reach the small group of women working as actresses in Afghanistan.

Many of those auditioning have been harassed, insulted or received death threats because of their profession.

"Afghanistan is a traditional society," one actress explains. "Many people are illiterate and don't understand the concept of theatre. I get harassed on the street. People call me a pervert and a prostitute. They say 'you are a lady and should be at home'. They don't understand."

Like many other actresses, Abidah used to teach in Kabul, and began acting when she could no longer support her family on her meagre salary.

"My daughter was very sick," she says. "I was teaching at the time but could not make enough money. So I said to my husband - your daughter is very sick please take her to the doctor.

"He said, 'To hell with her. She's a girl, wait until she's married and then her husband will pay for treatment. If she is to die - then let her die.'

"My character in films is completely different to my real character," she continues, "Anyone who watches me on television would think I have a very good life. But the money I receive from acting goes to pay for the children's school, the rent, and the bills."

'Little Paris'
National Theatre in Kabul The Afghan National Theatre staged Shakespeare before it was destroyed during the civil war in the 1990s

Theatrical performances were banned by the Taliban, and more than 10 years after the fall of the regime there is still little live theatre in Afghanistan.

The Kabul National Theatre once staged Shakespeare, Moliere and Brecht and was one of the largest theatres in Asia, complete with a revolving stage and royal box.

But it was destroyed during the civil war in the 1990s and never rebuilt.

Mirwais Siddiqi, head of the Agha Khan Music School in Kabul, remembers the city's glory days:

"Shakespeare is not something new in Afghanistan. When I was younger we used to go to the National Theatre in Kabul, and we saw Shakespeare. It was like a little Paris - people would leave the theatre at two in the morning. It was another world."

'Sensitivities'

Start Quote

Actor Shah Mohammed

The reason we wanted to do this play is to show the world that Afghanistan... has talented people, and rich culture”

End Quote Shah Mohammed Actor

The National Theatre now stages children's shows beside the ruined auditorium. It is managed by Shahpoor Sadaqat, who is sceptical of foreign arts projects.

"When Afghan directors cast a play they consider the traditions and work in a way that considers the sensitivities of the society," he says. "Foreign directors need to work with people who have good knowledge of the culture on the ground - otherwise they risk driving people even further away from theatre.

"Many foreigners come here, and when they leave the project is gone. They employ actors on contracts, and they play their roles, but when the director is gone that's it. They leave nothing."

The company have decided to rehearse in India, due to security concerns. Corinne Jaber intends to bring the play back to Kabul following a tour in India, the UK and Germany.

But the deteriorating security situation means The Comedy of Errors may never reach Afghanistan.

And for the actors involved, changing the face of Afghanistan abroad is almost more important that performing back home.

"The only things people associate Afghanistan with are drugs, war and terrorism," says Shah Mohammed, one of the actors, "The reason we wanted to do this play is to show the world that Afghanistan is not what you think: it has talented people, and rich culture. There has been war, but life goes on."

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