Shakespeare ... in Kabul?
Granted, it is an idea that takes some getting used to. But there is much about modern-day Afghanistan, a Central Asian country emerging from 23 years of war, that William Shakespeare would have found familiar: autocratic leaders playing great games with the lives of men, doomed lovers defying ethnic or tribal taboos, nobles and servants trading bawdy jokes, and devious warlords and ambitious mistresses hatching foul plots.
And an ambitious Afghan theater group is hoping that their fellow Afghans - in a two-week theater run of "Love's Labour's Lost" that started Wednesday - will find deep connections to their own society today.
"Shakespeare was a great writer, a great performer, an actor, not famous only in England but all over the world," says Wali Faisal Azizi, the handsome actor who plays the nobleman, Dumain. "Shakespeare's secret is that beside knowing about people of his own country, he had insight into the human heart. That is why he is great."
He smiles. "Obviously, I can't tell you that Shakespeare was an Afghan," he says, "but he was a great writer."
Part of that greatness is the universality of tales like "Love's Labour's Lost," a drama set in 15-century France but still relevant to today's Afghanistan. The story is centered on four noblemen who take a vow to study, fast, pray, and not see women for three years. This highly unnatural, and vaguely Talibanesque plan, falls apart just as soon as four beautiful princesses arrive in town, and the noblemen fall instantly in love. Pride prevents them from breaking their vow openly, which leaves them easy prey for the princesses and their bag of tricks. The remainder of the play is a hilarious roundabout of mistaken identity and ham-handed romance.
Mullah Omar may not find any of this amusing, but then again, he's not invited.
Director Corinne Jaber says the idea for putting on "Love's Labour's Lost" was the happy result of a trip last spring, in which she met some local actors and held a few acting workshops. Right away she noticed that the Afghan actors were brilliant at improvisation, and were aching to take on meatier roles. But nobody, after 23 years of war, wanted to do tragedies - so that left the comedies. And they wanted to do it in the Afghan dialect of Farsi, called Dari.
"It does not make sense in a country like this where there's just been war and destruction and no culture for almost 25 years to hold a European play in English," says Ms. Jaber, a Canadian actress. "I think the only reason to do a play like this is to give it to them," the Afghans, in their own tongue. Jaber envisions the group taking this play and others to those few Afghans cities where theater, and particularly the inclusion of women actors, would be welcome.
Getting a Persian translation of the play proved easier than expected. An Iranian scholar who spent his school years at Oxford had translated all of Shakespeare into Persian, and a team of US, European, and Afghan drama lovers quickly set about making the Bard work in an Afghan context.
The first thing they did was to change the nationality of the characters from Frenchmen to Afghans. One scene in which the noblemen disguise themselves as a troupe of Russians was seen as distinctly unfunny, so the Russians quickly became Indians. But the central theme of the play - love - required no translation at all.
Sabah-e Sahar, a famous Afghan filmmaker who plays the lead female role, says that the Afghan people will easily understand the motivations of these medieval characters. She says the traditional rules of Elizabethan England about love and modesty are very similar to the strict ban on affection in modern Afghanistan.
"Love is not new in this country," says Ms. Sahar, who has supported herself for years as a policewoman. "But you can't tell people, oh, I've fallen in love. There's lots of change from that black period until now, the Taliban period, when you couldn't even walk with your own husband in the street. In this time, we have lots of freedom. But love is still something you should keep secret."
Nabi Tanha, a veteran actor of film and television and an acting instructor at Kabul University, says that it's about time the Afghan people get a good love story.
"Ishq, or love, is a miracle from God, and everybody in the world is like this, they can't resist love," says Mr. Tanha.
Tanha recognizes that war has dispersed the educated Afghan audience that would have easily appreciated the nuances of Shakespeare. But Tanha says this just means he and his fellow actors have to work harder to get their message across.
This being theater, there have been occasional tantrums by actors, fainting spells, and complicated backstage lives. Marina Gulbahari, for instance, has to travel around the city in a burqa to avoid harassment because of her fame as the preteen star of the Afghan movie, "Osama."
There is also a strange appearance of the stuffy declamatory style of Shakespearean acting that has been difficult to squash.
Yet the greatest difficulty, Jaber says, has been to get these actors to reach down deep into themselves to that fragile part of each person where love resides, a part that most Afghans have kept hidden for years.
"All these people are in, or about to go into, arranged marriages," says Jaber. "So they're not asked, very rarely, whether they want to marry this lady or not. Marriage is not linked to love. The boys don't want to go to that point in themselves, that imagination that everybody has where love is," Jaber says. "Which is difficult, because the whole play is about love."
Yet, from a recent rehearsal in the garden, it's clear that these actors are in their element. The scene is set outside the castle walls, near the tent where the princesses are staying - uncomfortably - as guests of the king. The four noblemen have sent love letters and gifts to the princesses. Now they are arriving, disguised in Mahatma-Gandhi-style dhotis as a group of visiting Indian dancers, to profess their love to the women in person.
Led by Tanha, who plays a nobleman Biron, the men improvise a dance scene fit for a Bollywood comedy. The women break out in laughter.
The sound of Shakespeare translated into Persian is a bit jarring.
Missing is the thump-THUMP of iambic pentameter and the end-rhyme scheme. But it's clear even to a non-Dari speaker that the richness of the poetic expression has survived the rocky transfer from Elizabethan English to modern Persian, which itself has a rich poetic tradition.
But the biggest test is the effect of these pretty words on the actors themselves. In a rehearsal of the play's finale, the actors - men and women - spontaneously broke into tears. Jaber asked them what had happened, and they replied, "This is the last time these lovers will see each other." After a break, the actors melted into puddles all over again.
Somehow, one feels the bard would have been pleased.