No stage frights

Last Updated 26 October 2013, 14:40 IST

‘Shakespeare in Kabul’ is an arresting account of bringing timeless works of Shakespeare on stage in terror-scarred Kabul. Prema Nandakumar writes...

Shakespeare is for ever. Shakespeare is for all climes. Shakespeare for all languages. Shakespeare for all seasons. So many changes have taken place in this world in every branch of life. But Shakespeare remains firm, and we continue to remain as bewitched with his company as Falstaff was with his Gadshill group.

I had encountered the Bard of Avon when as a child of five, I heard my village grandmother tell me the story of Amaladiththan. More than a decade later, I was to realise that this was the Tamil version of Hamlet. The Kendall family’s Shakespeariana had toured India in the late 1950s. As a teenager, I had watched some of their plays in a university auditorium and clapped ceaselessly whenever the smart, tall Shashi Kapoor appeared on the stage. Shakespeare is a universal favourite, nobody dare stop his march, I had believed. Till Shakespeare in Kabul landed on my table.

So what happened in Kabul when the Bard of Avon went there announcing Love’s Labour Lost? Post-Taliban Afghanisthan was a land of hope, of dreams, of global camaraderie. Corinne Jabber (French actress), Qais Akbar Omar (writer), Stephen Landrigan (playwright), and a few Afghan actors came together to produce Love’s Labour’s Lost in the local language. Little did they know that this single production would become an icon of perseverance and hope for all time to those who find themselves helpless in a world of meaningless terror.

Certainly an attractively talkative journalist, Landrigan speaks of the backdrop, the decision to stage Shakespeare in this wounded city, finding the proper language and then the script and fishing for funds. The British Council helps with some solid backing. But the script? Since the Talibanomania was around, one had to be very careful with sexy innuendos that are scattered throughout the play.

Corinne’s solution is in the style of the Queen of Hearts: “Disregard all the subplots, and the puns, and all that stuff. Just focus on the four men and the four women.” In which language should the play be presented? Afghanisthan has two official languages: Pashto and Dari (Farsi). Fortunately, Dr Alaeddin Pazargadi’s Farsi translation is located and the work taken up for finalising the script. Tempers often reach a boiling point. Neither Corinne nor Landrigan knew Dari. Fortunately, they have Omar.

Omar now takes up the baton for describing how the actors were recruited, the cultural huff-puff between the Afghans and the foreigners, the latter’s determination to break down class and gender divisions, a few triumphs and the many failures that formed their rehearsals. Through it all we get glimpses of Taliban atrocity who also had held dramatic entertainment “of a different sort” like publicly stoning people accused of adultery or homosexuality.

The initiator, Corinne does feel suffocated in this self-imposed, thankless task. No wonder, Nabi Tanha’s speech grows weary: “Shakesperare plays with words, while our people played with guns for the past three decades. Some days, I think that doing Shakespeare is a waste of time.”

Fortunately, there are those who are optimistic. Now Landrigan and Omar speak together. The crew of the play go ahead with various shades of enthusiasm and apathy and on August 31, 2005, the production in Dari becomes a reality and a roaring success. The characters have Afghan names.

For Shakespearian disguise, the young men come wearing dhotis and singing a Bollywood song, maddening the crowd with joy. Originally, it should have been Russian costume, but there was objection, and presto, the Afghan actors emerged as Indians in a jiffy, for they only needed long panels of white cotton cloth and kumkum on the forehead, easily supplied by the lipstick in Breshna’s handbag. Not much different from an Indian stage production, for we have a bit of seat-grabbing too, frothy words and ugly looks among the audience, a parallel drama! The success of producing a Shakespearian programme in Dari is underlined eloquently by what happened later.

“At the first performance, most of the Afghans in the audience were men. When they saw that there was nothing anti-Islamic or un-Islamic in the play, they came back on subsequent evenings and brought their wives and daughters to see it.”

So the transmuted version of Love’s Labour Lost was produced in other places too. There was wide, wild enthusiasm, and even a tour. There are Pickwickian situations and Shakespeare succeeds because two of the actors have made their name in the TV serial, Bulbul! Each one of these 230 pages has a lithe movement except the last 10, which speak of Parwin’s tragedy. Woman is not yet free in Afghanistan. But Shakespeare has come in and will stay.

(Published 26 October 2013, 14:40 IST)

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