Shakespeare in Kabul Stephen Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar

Haus, pp.280, £12.99

In Translations, Brian Friel’s play about English military and cultural imperialism, the frustrated teacher Manus explains how he uses ‘the wrong gesture in the wrong language’ to insult in Gaelic an English soldier. In Shakespeare in Kabul, Stephen Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar’s account of the first production of Shakespeare in Afghanistan since before the Soviet invasion in the 1970s, an Afghan theatre group, led by the French director Corinne Jaber, attempt the ‘right’ gestures in their own language as they perform Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Following the initial 2005 performance in Kabul, the actors are now trying to do the same in London, re-importing Shakespeare to the UK by putting on The Comedy of Errors in Dari at the Globe Theatre in London.

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Shakespeare in Kabul offers primarily a simple narrative of the 2005 production, leaving deeper issues either only implicitly evident or unexplored. The authors, who were both involved in the play, perhaps have in mind the plethora of literature on the condition of Afghanistan. As an overt focus on such issues might diverge from the main story, this is mostly welcome. However, at moments, the opportunity to look through the prism of this production into, for example, the regional and ethnic divisions throughout Afghanistan (conservative Kandahar and the south are conspicuous mainly by their absence) is missed.

Putting on a production of Shakespeare in Kabul is perhaps even more momentous than it sounds. The Taleban’s notorious Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice would never have permitted the performance of an English play with female actresses. Even in the era of ‘blind optimism’ permeating Afghanistan in 2005, the production represented an affront to prevailing beliefs; as one of the leading actors states boldly at the outset, ‘we could challenge the whole country’. The gravity of this challenge is evident from the fate of one of his female colleagues, who is hounded with her family from Afghanistan, her husband murdered seemingly because of her participation in the play. Many in Afghanistan still do not think it is right for women to act, and will take it into their own hands to enforce such values.

These hurdles were also the incentives that helped energise the group to produce the play. Those involved are clearly of a type invigorated by hardship. Jaber sounds typical of the determined foreign workers one meets in Afghanistan, perhaps ‘ignorant of local culture’ but determined to achieve something in the face of adversity. Her ebullience frequently clashes with Afghan sensibilities, which, as any visitor to the country will observe, are highly attuned to politesse and manners, in a way that, curiously, can make an Englishman feel at home. Shakespeare in Kabul describes these interactions acutely, with a dry turn of phrase. Jaber has a ‘strange way of doing things’, cutting off, in a very un-Afghan way, her interpreter as he tries to provide advice on Afghan manners.

These observations are at their sharpest when applied to the problems of language and communication; the importance of which is evident in passages in which the actors ‘struggle to grasp the full meanings of their sentences’. By the end of this refreshingly straightforward and at times moving story, they are confident they have done so, making the right gestures in the ‘right’ language and shaking off any neo-colonial overtones in the process. As one of the leading men, Shah Mohammad, proclaims: ‘We domesticated Shakespeare, and included Afghan music and jokes, which made the play look like an Afghan party.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Afghanistan, Book reviews, Shakespeare