Every nation has a terrible tale to tell, but surely Afghanistan’s is among the worst. In the past three decades alone, this Central Asian country has suffered relentless bombings and violence at the hands of first the Soviets and the mujahedeen, then the Taliban, warlords and American drones. Few adult Afghanis have emerged without emotional scars.
It’s no surprise then that, as artistic genres go, tragedy is not exactly an Afghan favourite: in 2005 when a Kabul-based theatrical troupe looked for a play by William Shakespeare to present – for Afghanistan’s first performance of the Bard in 30 years – the actors sped right past Hamlet, Othello and King Lear and chose instead Love’s Labour’s Lost, a pun-filled, funny and romantic theatrical romp.
“We have lived tragedy for three decades of war. We don’t want to do tragedy,” was how the actor Nabi Tanha explained the troupe’s position to the authors of Shakespeare in Kabul, an entertaining, light read about Afghanistan’s unorthodox and reportedly wonderful 2005-06 production.
“A tragedy play is too soon now,” agreed his fellow actor Shah Mohammed. “Let’s make people laugh.”
So, Love’s Labour’s Lost it was. And for a few precious hours in the summer of 2005 and the following spring, Shakespeare’s comedic verses – performed in the Afghan language of Dari – brought laughter and goodwill to audiences gathered, first, in a magnificent historic garden in Kabul, then the crumbling “Queen’s Palace” in the capital, and later the ancient Citadel in Herat, built by Alexander the Great. Those laughs even arrived embellished with a Bollywood-style musical score – but more of that later.
Certainly, Love’s Labour’s Lost was a rare if short-lived experience for Afghanistan, report authors Stephen Landrigan, an American journalist and playwright, and his carpet-merchant-friend-turned-translator, Qais Akbar Omar; both were involved in the production. Certainly, the play pushed the limits on rules about mingling of the sexes, by featuring four men and four women together in the cast, amazingly without negative audience feedback.
But the authors dwell less on the production’s external factors than the events inside the tightly knit circle of actors – their flare-ups, their frustrations, their eagerness to analyse the Bard’s poetry in the context of their own culture.
That part was welcome, the authors write, because the director and initiator of Love’s Labour’s Lost, a Paris-based actress of Syrian descent named Corinne Jaber, wanted the production, above all, to be an Afghan play. Jaber was visiting a friend in Afghanistan in 2005 when she met Landrigan, then working for an NGO to repay debts on his own play, which had been a critical success at the Edinburgh Festival but a financial failure. The two were standing one afternoon in the lush garden of a nobleman’s 150-year-old house, which today hosts the western-funded Foundation for Culture and Civil Society. And, “Ensnared in the enchantment spun by its roses, its grand arches and doorways, its terraces and balconies ... so many places for entrances and exits,” Landrigan turned to Jaber to say softly, “We must do a show here.” To which she whispered back: “Yes ... Shakespeare.”
And that’s how it began. Never mind that no Dari version of Shakespeare existed, the closest lingual bridge being an Iranian professor’s translation of Shakespeare into Farsi. Or that gender restrictions in Afghanistan prohibited the outright flirtations inherent in plays like Twelfth Night and As You Like It.
Never mind that the artistic directors initially had no money. Or that Afghanistan’s theatrical tradition was woefully short: performances dated back only to the 1920s; Kabul University’s theatre programme had been cut short by civil war; and the sole modern theatre, built by the Germans in the 1970s, stood in partial ruin from rocket blasts.
But in the spring of 2005, anything seemed possible; optimism prevailed. Violence was down; national elections had happened without a hitch; and normality seemed to be returning. So Jaber and Landrigan set about securing funding from the British Council and hiring a translator, who faced a herculean task, considering that it included both Shakespeare’s high-minded Elizabethan puns and the fact that Dari verbs come at the ends of sentences, disrupting the meter.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is a comedy about a king and three noblemen who vow to study, fast and refrain from women for three years; but their pact goes off track when four alluring ladies arrive from a neighbouring kingdom, with comedic consequences. Jaber knew she had to make the story accessible to audiences unfamiliar with western references, never mind Elizabethan ones and 16th-century words even English speakers can’t grasp.
She ended up trimming the script’s 2,785 lines to 1,000 and the play itself to a 90-minute running time. She also maintained the story’s romantic love, though most Afghan marriages are arranged. She fretted – unnecessarily – that the king’s “oath” would remind audiences of the Taliban’s rigid rules.
For the actresses’ costumes, she rejected the burqa in favour of northern Afghanistan-inspired, Turkmen-style headscarves worn over small round caps; decorated with jewellery, they appeared royal. Actors wore the shalwar kameez Afghan men wear.
Jaber also rejected scenery, opting instead for elegant kilims and the “carpet shows” approach of her mentor, British theatrical innovator Peter Brooks.
Casting was another challenge, though Jaber managed to recruit top names: Marina Gulbahari was celebrated for her country’s 2003 film Osama, which had been screened worldwide and garnered both America’s Golden Globe and Cannes’ AFCAE Award. Nabi Tanha (later tapped for a role in The Kite Runner) and the actress Breshna Bahar had previously starred in the well-known Afghan movie, Bulbul.
The problem of putting together unrelated men and women chafed, however. For weeks they wouldn’t sit next to one another, much less coalesce as an acting company.
Some of Shakespeare in Kabul’s passages suffer from excessive, dry detail. But the book perks up describing the cast’s internal tensions and explorations of Shakespeare’s verse. Author Quais, as the actors called him, had the advantage of bilingualism and in the book explains how he often chose deliberately to give Corinne only partial translations of the actors’ irritation at her breaches of Afghan etiquette – like raising her voice, or outright screaming her frustration. Language barrier or not, even she knew when she’d gone too far: one or another actor would stalk off, only to reappear the next day. “She came from France and she thinks she knows the solutions to all our problems,” some actor would gripe, making the others laugh. Seeing their amusement, Corinne assumed she’d made peace – unaware, because her translator stayed silent – that she was the object of derision.
On the upside were the medleys of conversation the actors had, which Quais also eavesdropped upon; one was a marvellous poetry jam few English speakers could match, in terms of quoting lengthy excerpts from preeminent poets such as Rumi and Hafiz.
Now, about that Bollywood score. It came to fruition when the male actors were asked to dress as “Russians” when the play’s noblemen decide to break their vow of celibacy but disguise their identities. No way, the actors said as one. So instead, they created their own “Afghan” moment, dressing as Indians and singing and dancing in the comic and flamboyant “Bollywood” style so popular among their countrymen.
The crowd went wild. Love’s Labour’s Lost became a huge hit and the focus of international news coverage when it debuted in June 2005.
The good feelings, sadly, didn’t last. Around this time, a US military vehicle lost its brakes on a hill and ploughed into a crowd in Kabul, killing several Afghans and infuriating the population. A bomb went off at Herat University to protest the education of women; four died. More and more tragedies would come, but for the Shakespeare troupe none was sadder than the murder of one of their own: the husband of actress Parwin Mustahel was killed in apparent protest of her participation. Still, the spark had been lit and the organisers of this year’s World Shakespeare Festival in London contacted Jaber to ask her to consider directing the Kabul troupe in Richard II. “Afghans don’t do tragedy,” she told them, knowingly.
The Comedy of Errors? they asked.
“Let’s talk,” she said.
The troupe, now called Roy-e-Sabs, will perform The Comedy of Errors (in Dari) at the Globe Theatre in London on May 30 and 31.
Joan Oleck is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.