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The Comedy of Errors

Shakespeare in Kabul

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An Afghan troupe is all set to perform 'The Comedy of Errors' for the Globe Theatre Festival.

At the Azad Bhavan auditorium in Delhi, a theatre group is rehearsing The Comedy Of Errors. A scene isn't right and director Corinne Jaber insists on redoing it several times. It could be a rehearsal for any other production but there's one vital difference - the actors are all from Afghanistan.

Over the last few weeks, the Afghan theatre group, Rah-e-Sabz, has toured through Bangalore, Pune and Mumbai to stage this adaptation of Shakespeare's play set in contemporary Kabul and scripted in Dari - a version of modern Persian spoken in Afghanistan. The production has been specially commissioned for London's Globe Theatre Festival, where it will be staged at the end of the month along with other plays of Shakespeare performed in different languages.

"We were initially asked to perform Richard II but thought The Comedy Of Errors was ideal since it could be easily transposed onto the Afghan context, " says Jaber. A French actress, she has been making frequent trips to Afghanistan since 2005 and has already directed two other plays with Afghan actors.

It hasn't been easy. On August 19 last year, Jaber and her troupe narrowly escaped being killed when Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen attacked the British Council building in Kabul, where they were scheduled to rehearse. A lastminute decision to call it off because of Ramzan saved their lives. Following this, the company has been rehearsing in India, where they were invited by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

Theatre isn't new to Afghanistan, where modern theatre dates back to 1902. The first drama companies sprang up in the 1940s, and a women's theatre group was formed in 1958. Theatre became a popular form of entertainment in the urban centres in the 1950s and '60s, when translations of foreign plays and indigenous plays focusing on everyday life, were staged. The 1970s saw the opening of the Kabul Nendari, a national theatre built with West German assistance.

The civil war that began in 1992 and the subsequent Taliban rule dealt a blow to Afghan theatre, which began to be revived after the end of the Taliban rule in late 2001. Parwin Mushtahel, who is part of the Rah-e-Sabz production, was the first woman to appear on Afghan television after the Taliban years. Mushtahel acted in a short, 50-minute play called Dark Night about the condition of women under Taliban rule. Her husband, who worked for women's rights, was killed by them four years ago. "He was already receiving threats from the Taliban. He got a phone call one evening, and didn't return that night. We found out later that he had been killed, " says Mushtahel, who plays the role of Zan-e Motakef, or the character of Emelia in the original play.

Today, the Afghan stage has got a new lease of life, supported by countries like the United States, Britain and France. There is also support from cultural bodies like the Goethe Institut, says Jaber. But there is still some distance to cover. Among the biggest challenges of directing this production, Jaber says, was getting the male and female actors to touch each other. The threat of the Taliban also remains. But Jaber is optimistic. "In Afghanistan, anything is possible so long as you keep it low-key. You can do what you want so long as you remain invisible. "

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