International productions of Shakespeare’s plays are taking to the stage across the UK. Elizabeth Stewart investigates how British cultural attachés have helped struggling theatre groups from some of the unlikeliest places overcome adversity to perform in Britain.
In a rural dance studio outside Bangalore a troupe of Afghan actors and actresses are putting the final touches to A Comedy of Errors, to be performed in Dari Persian at the Globe to Globe festival in London at the end of May.
The trials the intrepid actors of Roy-e-Sabs – roughly translated as ‘Path of Hope’ – have endured to perform in the footlights at the Globe Theatre read like a Shakespearean tragedy.
The first problem was finding finance but the British Council came to the rescue, providing funding to get the production started and to commission a translation of the play into Dari.
Turning tragedy to comedy
Of all the 37 Shakespearean plays, a farce may seem an odd choice for Afghanistan. “You’d expect one of Shakespeare’s history plays or a tragedy, but we felt – and our Afghan colleagues agreed – that Afghanistan had had enough tragedy,” explains Paul Smith, British cultural attaché and Director of the British Council in Kabul. “In the end A Comedy of Errors turned out to be a very appropriate choice because it’s a production about people who get lost and are in search of their identity. It’s got an Afghan feel to it because here people are trying to assert who they are and find their own home in their own context after years of rupture.”
The play opens in Kabul airport, with a father returning to his homeland in search of his missing sons, who were lost – not in a shipwreck as Shakespeare intended – but in a sandstorm. Other touches include Afghan names for places and characters, Afghan music and Afghan-made costumes with traditional fabrics.
The British Council also managed to track down Corinne Jaber, a renowned German-Syrian theatre director and actress to produce the play. In 2005, while living with her husband in Kabul, she had staged Loves Labours Lost in the 16th century Moghul Babur Gardens (whose restoration was an initiative by the German and US Embassies in Kabul).
But since the 2005 production, the security situation in Kabul has deteriorated and so the British Council offered their secure compound in Kabul as a rehearsal venue.
The next challenge was finding women actresses, who put themselves at risk simply by appearing on stage. Only a decade has passed since the Taliban was in power and had banned all forms of theatre and forbade women to appear in public without a veil.
There remain very conservative elements within society and many of those auditioning had been harassed, insulted or received death threats because of their profession.
But that did not deter them: “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.
“This is the first international cultural event that South Sudan is holding as a nation. It was an opportunity to make a statement of solidarity and national culture and the importance of the arts when creating a national identity”
Cathy Gomez, British Council
Triumph over adversity
Then tragedy struck: the day before the final set of intensive rehearsals were due to begin last August, the British Council complex was attacked in the single worst atrocity in the 80-year history of the organisation.
“Three British Council staff were held in a safe room during a terrible eight-hour siege, while insurgents threw grenades into the building and suicide bombers killed themselves. Thousands of kilogrammes of explosives had gone off in vehicles at the gates, killing 14 people. Every room in the compound was utterly burned and destroyed; everything we owned was destroyed,” recalls Smith. “So this play was indirectly a victim of violence that was happening in Afghanistan.”
Unbowed, rehearsals moved to India and Smith believes it was worth persevering despite the tragedy. “When the need on the ground in Kabul is so great for education and the development of civil society, you could ask why we decided to put our resources into this play. It’s our belief that we need to enrich the image of what is happening in Afghanistan.
“The country is suffering from only being seen as a place of lack of development, corruption, violence, war and terrorism – which sadly it is – but we must also remind the world that it is also a country of 30 million people, who have creativity, determination and culture.
“We thought the opportunity of performing on the Globe stage with actors and actresses presenting to a UK audience their own interpretation of a feisty comic production of Shakespeare in Dari was one of the ways of changing the image a bit.”
The British Council has recovered from the attack, says Smith. “We’re now based at the British Embassy and it’s been extraordinary over the past six months how the British Council itself has pulled back and is back to full programmes, with its work at schools and universities, in civil society and arts and so on.”
So too are the arts in Afghanistan re-asserting themselves after being stunted by war and years of Taliban rule.
“Slowly and gradually, we are trying to rebuild our arts and theatre again after they were destroyed by fighting,” explains Nabi Tanha, who plays one of the play’s lead roles and was in the Oscar-nominated film, The Kite Runner, based on the book by Khaled Hosseini.
“This is important as a statement of national and cultural identity and that is why we persevered despite the huge setbacks,” adds Smith.
Creating a national identity
It’s the same sentiment that inspired the South Sudan Theatre Company, from the world’s youngest country, to write to the organisers of the Globe to Globe festival in a bid to be included, as drama and dance adviser at the British Council, Cathy Gomez, explains: “This is the first international cultural event that South Sudan is holding as a nation. It was an opportunity to make a statement of solidarity and national culture and to highlight the importance of the arts when creating a national identity.”
Shakespeare is popular in South Sudan, as the country’s Presidential Adviser for Culture recalled: “I used to lie in the bush under the stars reading Shakespeare’s plays, not thinking about the killing that would take place in the morning.”
The British Council Office in Juba has been involved in the development of the production from the start, through funding and by sending out two British theatre practitioners to work with the actors and acclaimed South Sudanese director and theatrical activist Joseph Abuk in adapting Cymbeline into a Sudanese context.
Ultimately, the play echoes themes of South Sudan’s history of 50 years of violent struggle – a story of a war of liberation, people displaced from home and self, betrayal, love and a political settlement on the eve of battle.
British Council funds have helped other struggling productions get off the ground for the World Shakespeare Festival, including an Iraqi portrayal of inter-communal violence through Romeo and Juliet, as well as a unique Tunisian adaptation of Macbeth, influenced by the Arab Spring and reflecting the same themes of tyranny, paranoia and war, both of which will be staged in Shakespeare’s birth place, Stratford-on-Avon.
The courageous Belarus Free Theatre, which performs in secret in their home country for fear of persecution, has many fans, including Tom Stoppard, Mick Jagger and the late Harold Pinter. They got to London on their own steam and will be staging King Lear.
Israel’s Habima theatre comes to the UK for the first time to perform The Merchant of Venice, a reminder of the anti-semitism that prevailed in Shakespeare’s day, while the Palestinian Ashtar Theatre will present its interpretation of Shakespeare’s masterpiece of dislocation, Richard II.
For others it has been a joint effort – such as the theatre groups from Serbia, Macedonia and Albania who have come together to produce a Balkan-inspired adaptation of the Henry VI trilogy which chronicles Britain’s War of the Roses, a civil war with parallels to the conflict in the Balkans.
The eternal themes in Shakespeare’s plays still seem to resonate across the ages and across the oceans.
The World Shakespeare Festival is testament to the Bard’s universal appeal, concludes Globe to Globe festival director Tom Bird, who travelled from West to East in search of productions: “The miracle is you travel around the world and this playwright who British people often think of as theirs, everyone thinks of as their own. Shakespeare is popular everywhere.”
For information on all the performances in the World Shakespeare Festival, visit:www.worldshakespearefestival.org.uk
The South Sudan Theatre Company rehearse Cymbeline
Terror attacks did not deter Afghanistan’s Roy-e- Sabs from coming to London
Roy-e-Sabs perform at the ancient Babur Gardens in Kabul
Director Joseph Abuk’s adaptation of Cymbeline
resonates with South Sudan’s liberation struggle