SUNDAY TIMES - From tragedy to comedy
Sunday Times STLive By Reuters, 2012-03-04 00:15:28.0

From tragedy to comedy

The odds were against them: Taliban suicide bombers laid siege to their rehearsal space and the search for actresses in ultra-conservative Afghanistan was arduous.

But come late May, a band of Afghan performers will be staging a play by William Shakespeare in their native Dari at London's Globe Theatre, part of a cultural festival designed to lead up to the Olympics.

"We took a comedy because the Afghans have lived enough tragedy," German-Syrian director Corinne Jaber said of choosing Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare's farcical play of mistaken identity.

The project will allow Afghans to defend a culture ruptured by 30 years of war, said local celebrity Nabi Tanha, who plays a lead role, Antipholus of Ephesus, and debuted to Western audiences in the Oscar-nominated film The Kite Runner.

"We are gradually trying to rebuild our arts and theatre after they were destroyed by fighting," he said.

Afghan-made costumes with traditional fabrics, Afghan music, Afghan place names as well as local renditions of the characters - Antipholus of Ephesus is renamed Arsalan - complement the original Shakespearean text in Dari.

The play is part of Globe to Globe, a celebration of the Bard where his 38 plays will be performed in 38 languages by 38 companies in a six-week festival that kicks off on his birthday on April 23, and includes troupes from South Sudan and ex-Soviet Georgia. It is part of the London 2012 Festival, leading up to the London Olympic Games.

"It is a huge honour for me to act in a Shakespeare play and in a country where he has a dedicated theatre," said Farzana Sultani, one of three actresses in the play. Softly spoken and clad in trainers and a blue hijab, the 21-year-old lamented the hurdles faced by women who want to work. "We have to satisfy our families and justify why we want to work, as they don't have a very open view of society."

Producer Roger Granville pointed to the irony in finding Afghan actresses, saying it would have been simpler to live up to Shakespearean traditions by having an all-male cast. Underlining the challenge, one of the three actresses - an Afghan refugee - comes from Canada.

The austere rule of the Islamist Taliban banned theatre outright and although they were toppled a decade ago, performers today, especially women, complain of threats from the group and pressure from disapproving relatives. This, coupled with the uncertainty of everyday life in Afghanistan, were main drivers behind Jaber's decision to have the troupe do most of its rehearsing for six weeks in India, beginning in April.

They used the British Council in Kabul for early rehearsals, but stopped after it was attacked by a band of suicide bombers in an hours-long assault that killed nine people.