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What Shakespeare did in Kabul

In 2005, four years after Afghanistan was free from the merciless clutches of the Taliban, playwright Stephen Landrigan and French actress Corinne Jaber visited the country as tourists, keen on discovery. Hope was in the air, and they could feel the optimism of the people who had put their lives and dreams on hold for three decades. The duo had seen the bazaars of Mazar-e-Sharif come to life with poetry and lights on Naw Ruz, and were eager to meet Robert Kluijver, who ran the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society in Kabul. The foundation was a haven for actors, poets, musicians and other artistes who were finding their way back to normalcy. And it was here that Landrigan and Jaber thought of the unimaginable — of staging Shakespeare in the very city.


Afghanistan’s first public performance of a Shakespeare play in a quarter-century raised delighted laughter from a packed house, with most of the audience having never seen live theatre before — much less men and women acting together. AFP Photo

Shakespeare in Kabul is told through the points of views of Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar, a local from Kabul who later became the translator, editor-in-chief of the script and assistant director of the production. Afghanistan, relates Omar, does not have a long theatrical tradition. But poetry, which is at the heart of every Shakespearean work, is close to every Afghan’s heart. In the first few pages, Landrigan relates the daunting process of choosing the right Shakespearean play to be brought alive in Kabul — Twelfth Night, All’s Well That Ends Well and As You Like It are ruled out because Jaber suspects that the male-female interaction in the comedies might be uncomfortable for the actors and viewers. Cymbeline and Pericles, too, don’t make the cut because they seem too dark for a people who had endured violence by the Taliban.

Next up for consideration is Love’s Labour Lost, a play about four noblemen who decide to renounce the world for three years to study and fast, and move away from womenfolk. However, four young ladies arrive in their kingdom from a neighbouring country. Jaber, writes Landrigan, notices how their dilemma of putting rules of hospitality over their vows is similar to the Pashtunwali code which demands that hospitality must be extended at all cost. Jaber also likes that the play allows her to cast an equal number of men and women.

By pure chance, Landrigan finds a Farsi translation of the play, and Jaber flies back to Kabul to meet the actors. Hereon, the story of how a Shakespearean play changed a few actors’ lives in Kabul is told from Omar’ point of view. He writes about finding the perfect people to play the four noblemen, including the the all-commanding Nabi Tanha and his sidekick Shah Mohammad. The search for the right female actors, however, proves to be daunting. Amid many auditions and breakdowns, Jaber manages to find a homemaker, a policewoman and a Kabul beggar who shot to fame after her role in Osama (2003) to act in the play.

Shakespeare in Kabul is a sincere attempt to chronicle the process of introducing the world’s greatest playwright to people who, at first, seem to have little in common with his work. Is Shakespeare relevant in Afghanistan? It is, if one imagines how similar the situation in Afghanistan was to Shakespeare’s own times — tyrannical leaders presiding over innocent civilians, lovers breaking rules to be together, raunchy humour and people hatching wily plans. It was this reason, surely, why one of the actors, Tanha, emphatically states that he would perform a Shakespearean comedy, not a tragedy. He says, "We have lived tragedy for three decades. We will do comedy. And when we do a tragedy, we will write our own plays, not use Shakespeare’s. It will be more intense than his, it will be the way it happened here — the planes came, circled above us, bombed our homes, schools and hospitals…”

With Omar as the narrator, the book becomes a mirror to the lives of the actors and Jaber. Slowly, as Omar takes the reader through some very difficult rehearsals, the people behind the actors come to light — Tanha, who hates being interrupted by Jaber because he believed she was flouting Afghan rules where you don’t cut people mid-sentence. Then, there is Jaber herself, who is on a deadline and must understand cultural mores or risk upsetting her actors. Omar is stuck somewhere in between — at times, he is asked not to translate the jibes the actors throw at Jaber in Pashto.

Shakespeare in Kabul is a candid and thoughtful peek into what went behind a play which changed eight lives in Kabul. Gradually, it is evident — to actors and viewers — that “Shakespeare is not about kings, about Taliban’s rules…” It is a big Afghan party. As one of the actors puts it — “I have heard that many Afghans had gone to live in England, maybe Shakespeare was one of them.”

Shakespeare in Kabul
Stephen Landrigan & Qais Akbar Qais
Published by Rupa R 295 

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