"Shakespeare in Kabul"

Outside the Arab/ic focus of this blog, but subject to a similar cultural tug-of-war (and I don’t mean anything to do with Islam), is the story of “Shakespeare in Kabul.”

In the bookshop of the National Theatre in London two weeks ago I saw a book by this title; alongside a photo of a gorgeous Afghan actress silently painting her eyelashes are the names of the authors, Stephen Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar. In self-consciously dramatic prose (with section headings like “Exposition” and “Climax”), the book tells the story of an Afghan production of Love’s Labour’s Lost directed by French actress and Peter Brooks Mahabharata alumna Corinne Jaber.  It has been well received, with good distribution and very warm reviews so far.  (Preview it here – and do download the “annex.”)


I had a chance to meet Mr. Landrigan during Jaber’s brief residency at my university last spring. He showed up to her events wearing a pakol (Afghan hat – think Ahmad Shah Masood) and kept interrupting the conversation, waxing nostalgic about the rehearsal photos, generally taking rhetorical ownership of a production in which his actual role seems to have been limited to helping adapt the script.

Later he went to Ms. Jaber’s hotel. He was, apparently, trying to persuade her to collaborate on the book. She refused, but somehow he enlisted Qais Akbar Omar (whom I haven’t met and whose story I don’t know), who I believe was the production’s assistant director.  Their finished book carries a self-serving postscript acknowledging Jaber’s non-cooperation and “wishing her well.”

Anyone else want to exploit Afghan Shakespeare for reputational gain? Take a number!

As Corinne Jaber’s follow-up show, a Comedy of Errors in Dari developed for London’s Globe-to-Globe festival, prepares to take the stage later this month, the Globe’s web site is touting the Afghan company’s work as “a theatrical miracle.”  Meanwhile, I was just forwarded (by two separate friends) a query from an academic listserv asking which theatre- and Mideast-related journals might want to review Shakespeare in Kabul. Well hidden (edited to sound bites) but still findable in all this promo are the voices that are really refreshing to hear — not so much Ms. Jaber’s, though she is a very warm, resourceful, and ferociously articulate artist — but those of the women and men who took a certain reputational risk to act in these shows.They don’t make it sound so miraculous. This from the interview with actor Nabi Tanha reprinted in the online appendix to the Haus volume:

1. How did participating in the play affect your life?
Normal. Nothing special.

2. Had you heard of Shakespeare before deciding to take part in the staging of Love’s Labour’s Lost?
Of course. When I was in Kabul University, Faculty of Fine Arts, we did many plays by Shakespeare. But the ones I remember very well, and which we rehearsed for weeks, were Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Apart from Shakespeare’s plays, we did other plays by other playwrights too, such as Prometheus Bound by a Greek playwright, Aeschylus, and some plays by M. Gorki and Brecht, who I believe is a German playwright. Beckett was another playwright whose plays we worked on.

The female actors had pretty similar things to say, depending what generation they were from. As with every theatre project, the youngest participants were the ones whose lives were changed most.  But almost everyone was pretty matter-of-fact, avoiding the chance to pontificate in response to silly questions like “What impact do you think staging Shakespeare in Afghanistan might have on the relationship between two cultures?” (What two cultures?)

Want more info before you make up your mind about the shows, the book, and the project? The Christian Science Monitor’s 2005 review of LLL is here. The Economist called it “magic.” You can find links to more press coverage of that production here (scroll all the way down), under a puffy interview with Shakespeare appropriation scholar Irena Makaryk.  Disregard the tone set by her university’s PR department: Makaryk has published a thoughtful article wondering, among other things, whose cultural agenda/s the Kabul production served: Makaryk, Irena R. “’Brief candle’? Shakespeare in Afghanistan.” Multicultural Shakespeare: Translation, Appropriation, Performance 6 (21) / 7 (22) (2010): 81-113.
And an interesting piece by my colleague Bill Carroll draws on interviews with Jaber to analyze directorial choices such as what to do about the “masque of Muscovites” (!) and why foreigners, but NOT the Afghan participants, would tend to read the young lords’ ascetic vows as Taliban-like. See Carroll, William. “Love’s Labour’s Lost in Afghanistan,” Shakespeare Bulletin, 2010.

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