Afghanistani actors Marina Gulbahari and Leila Hamgam
Published: 31 December, 2012
by LEO GARIB
IT’S impossible to imagine a more dangerous place to put on a Shakespeare play. Nowhere could have been more risky than war-torn Afghanistan to perform an English comedy about love.
Yet not only did a band of inexperienced local actors put on Shakespeare in 2005, but the audiences lapped it up. So successful was the company that last summer they were asked to perform at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, Blackfriars, in a festival that was part of the build-up to the Olympics.
For the British embassy, backing the original 2005 production in Afghanistan was a way of smoothing troubled waters when the occupation was on the rocks. For the actors the play was a remarkable triumph against terrible odds, including murder. For Afghanistanis it was a bitter-sweet reminder of what three decades of war has done to their country.
Billions of tax-payer dollars pumped into anti-Soviet warlords, the CIA and MI6 operations, the 2001 invasion and the millions of ruined lives, have left the country’s culture on life-support.
Afghanistan’s nascent theatre, even its long tradition of concerts and poetry performances, has been almost killed off. Its television is dominated by Indian soaps and Bollywood.
Kabul’s arts centre is a wreck. The grandiose Soviet-era complex built as a national stage for plays and concerts is now a dilapidated drug-den where men, women and children eke out their hopeless lives on heroin.
So for the tiny company of actors scratched together by French actress and director Corinne Jaber, the chances of staging Shakespeare must have seemed remote.
Afghanistanis hadn’t even heard of Shakespeare. His plays had never been performed. Few of the actors had any stage experience, and one of the leads, Marina Gulbahari, was a completely illiterate teenage girl from the slums.
They had to brush off death threats and violence from religious bigots, endure tortuous negotiations with puffed-up officials, navigate minefields of cultural taboos and production problems – war-blasted hotels, dust storms, thespian tantrums and how to incorporate a Bollywood dance extravaganza.
And, as a final reprisal, terrorists executed the husband of one of the stars. Still the company was irresistibly drawn to blazing a new future for their country with a play from the world’s most famous playwright. And Afghanistanis, perhaps remembering when music, poetry and hope were part of everyday life, nurtured similar hopes. When posters went up they were enthralled by the idea of watching a live performance after so many barren years.
By the time the first act was over they had tumbled head-over-heels for Love’s Labours Lost, Shakespeare’s comedy of courtly shenanigans and star-crossed lovers. Even as the insurgency raged, thousands swamped the palaces and parks where the play was performed, travelling for days, queuing for hours, hanging from trees and cheering, laughing, dancing and weeping ecstatically. Even braving bomb threats.
This fast-paced account by young Afghanistani theatre producer and Mr Fixit, Qais Akbar Omar, and American journalist and playwright Stephen Landrigan, gives a flavour of the mayhem behind the scenes and the passion that drove the company stubbornly on.
Perhaps to its detriment it steers clear of analysing Afghanistan. But it succeeds in setting the scene for what turned out to be one of the most memorable gestures by ordinary people over here to the people of Afghanistan – the cheers, foot-stomping and seven curtain-calls that followed the company’s performance last summer at the Globe Theatre’s World Shakespeare Festival.
Shakespeare in Kabul. By Stephen Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar. Haus Publishing, £12.99.