On Shakespeare

An Afghan Comedy of Errors For Our Time

If any more proof were needed that Shakespeare’s plays have powerful resonances for our time - whenever and wherever they are performed - it will be the production which will be one of the highlights of the Globe’s monumental Shakespeare Festival that starts in April. The Globe will be putting on 38 plays in 38 languages - a heroically ambitious project by the Globe’s artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole.

The Afghan Theatre Company have set Comedy of Errors in present-day Afghanistan spoken in Dari, and what the actors have to say about of this early play is enlightening.
Most English productions of the play (and much scholarship on it) tend to treat it as a straightforward farce. But Shakespeare offers much deeper and serious significances to explore emotional and psychological aspects of identity.

It seems to me that the actors and director of this production have been digging a lot deeper, and by approaching the play from the perspective of their country’s experience of war, will be bringing us much closer to the deeper meanings Shakespeare was concerned to show.

Director German-Syrian Corinne Jaber sees that Shakespeare has particular relevance to Afghanistan. "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.”

But preparing the production was fraught with difficulties - and danger. When Taliban suicide bombers laid siege to their rehearsal space in an hours-long attack that killed nine people, Jaber decided to move the company to India. beginning in April. “it was clear that we could not rehearse here peacefully.”

And the search for actresses in ultra-conservative Afghanistan was a huge problem. 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."

Producer Roger Granville pointed out the irony in finding Afghan actresses, saying it would have been simpler to live up to Shakespearean traditions by having an all-male cast. In the time of Shakespeare, of course, it was all-male productions.

One of the actors, Shah Mohammed says: "The only things people associate Afghanistan with are drugs, war and terrorism. 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."

I can’t wait to see it.

The Comedy of Errors will be performed at Shakespeare's Globe on May 30 and May 31.

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