Year of Shakespeare: The Comedy of Errors

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.

 

The Comedy of Errors, Roy-e-Sabs, dir.  Corinne Jaber, 31 May 2012 at The Globe, London

By Stephen Purcell, University of Warwick

At the beginning of Roy-e-Sabs’ production of The Comedy of Errors, the Afghan actress Parwin Mushtahel entered the stage alone, dressed as an airport security guard, and peered out into the crowd in silence. It must have been a charged moment for anybody in the audience who had read accounts of Mushtahel’s persecution in her home country for no crime other than her determination to pursue a career in acting. Her appearance as a silent representative of state authority leant a sinister tone to the scene that followed, with its highly-charged description of a torn-apart family and its looming threat of execution.

This retelling of Shakespeare’s play was set in a fictional version of modern-day Kabul, where Afghan expatriate Ehsan (Egeon) has arrived in search of his missing son Arsalan (Antipholus) and servant Bostan (Dromio), only to discover that natives of his homeland, Samarqand, are forbidden entry to Kabul on penalty of death. Arsalan and Bostan of Samarqand arrive in Kabul shortly afterwards, disguise themselves as locals, and as in Shakespeare’s play, are repeatedly mistaken for their twin counterparts, Arsalan and Bostan of Kabul.

Though the actors are all Afghan, this production was very much an international collaboration. Funded by bodies including the British Council, it was rehearsed in India under a French director, Corinne Jaber, who had directed the company’s inaugural Love’s Labour’s Lost in Kabul in 2005. The earlier production is the subject of the recently-published account Shakespeare in Kabul by Stephen Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar (Haus, 2012), in which Landrigan explains that Afghanistan has no indigenous theatre tradition, and that the western-influenced theatre it did produce during the second half of the twentieth century was all but extinguished following the departure of the Soviets in 1989 and the subsequent rise of the Taliban. The company’s style is thus an interesting fusion of traditional Afghan music, dance and poetry, and European forms.

The Comedy of Errors took this collision of East and West as its starting point. Shah Mamnoon Maqsudi’s Ehsan was a distinctly westernised expatriate, appearing before Daoud Lodin’s turbaned Emir in a beige suit and overcoat. Upon their first appearances as Arsalan and Bostan of Samarqand, Abdul Haq and Shah Mohammad entered through the yard, wearing checked shirts, trainers and panama hats. They greeted playgoers with friendly ‘helloes’, and used a small camera to take holiday snaps of the groundlings. Whereas Arsalan and Bostan of Kabul (Ghulamnabi Tanha and Basir Haider) tended to enter from the tiring house at the back of the stage, Arsalan and Bostan of Samarqand, representatives of the West, made most of their subsequent entrances from the yard. While Haq’s Arsalan of Samarqand shared his affable bewilderment with the audience throughout the performance, Tanha’s Arsalan of Kabul was aggressive and confrontational. The production choices aligned us, the audience, very much with the western outsiders in this culture. It is perhaps significant that this production has yet to play to audiences in Afghanistan itself.

Jaber trained with Monika Pagneux and Philippe Gaulier in Paris, and has worked with both Peter Brook and Ariane Mnouchkine. These intercultural but distinctly Parisian influences were highly evident in the production. Three musicians carrying traditional Afghan instruments entered the stage just prior to the first scene, laying down carpets in a gesture very reminiscent of Brook’s ‘carpet shows’. These musicians remained onstage throughout the evening, punctuating the action, setting mood, and interacting with the characters: Farzana Sayed Ahmad’s Rodaba (Luciana) seemed to blame Arsalan’s amorous advances on their musical accompaniment. Later on, one of them stepped in to become the Officer, controlling the movement of Arsalan’s mimed handcuffs by playing his flute. In a neat elaboration on this theatrical joke, Bostan’s mimed attempts to free his master were rebuffed by music too.

This was just one of many sequences of physical clowning. Arsalan and Bostan of Samarqand’s donning of disguises was performed as an extended slapstick mix-up, in which both men were befuddled by traditional Afghan attire.  Shah Mamnoon Maqsudi turned the role of Luce the kitchen maid (here named Kukeb) into a camp, buxom drag act, and the character resurfaced between scenes for sequences of mostly non-verbal foolery – flirting with the musicians, attempting to seduce Bostan of Kabul as he stuffed food into her mouth, chasing Bostan of Samarqand around the yard, and ‘accidentally’ molesting a male groundling. Bostan of Samarqand was very much the Arlecchino of commedia dell’arte, repeatedly leaping into Arsalan’s arms at the sound of Kukeb’s call, and pretending to be one of the musicians in order to escape her. Abida Frotan’s Sodaba (Adriana) performed a song-and-dance routine. The fact that most of these ‘turns’ were greeted with rounds of applause served to emphasise the way in which the script itself is structured as a progression of self-contained comic scenarios. (The Flying Karamazov Brothers production did something similar in 1982 by performing it as a series of circus acts.)

As all of this indicates, the dominant tone of the production was not the edgy topicality suggested by its opening moments, but rather a joyful and exuberant silliness, and a profound sense of optimism. Judging by their frequent expressions of surprise, many of the audience seemed to be encountering the play for the first time. By the end, the crowd’s goodwill was tangible: there was an audible release of emotion as Ehsan recognised his long-lost wife Zan-e Motakef (Mushtahel), followed by a loud round of applause, and each subsequent reunion was met with both applause and cheering. This response did, perhaps, over-extend the final scene, and the constant embraces emptied the Bostans’ final hand-hold of its usual impact. But as the cast returned to the stage for an increasingly enthusiastic set of curtain-calls, I found it hugely moving to be caught up in such a vigorous display of the emotional power of reconciliation. I sincerely hope the production is able to achieve a similar effect in the home country of its actors.

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Add your thoughts to the discussion below!

 

To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

 

A continuation by Paul Edmondson:
Steve Purcell’s review of the Afghan The Comedy of Errors has prompted me to post three audio-posts which I recorded after the Wednesday evening performance.

The first two are from young Afghan women who spoke to me very movingly about how the production made them feel, especially in relation to the its female performers. They worried for the actors’ safety, and they were anxious about the cultural perceptions of Afghanistan.

The third post records ALL THE APPLAUSE at the end of this remarkable show. It was a highly emotional moment in the Globe Theatre.

You can also listen below to an interview with two members of the company, recorded by the Globe Education Department:

 

Want to see what others thought of this performance? Look below to find out:

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Author:Stephen Purcell

Stephen is Assistant Professor of Shakespeare and Performance Studies at the University of Warwick, and Artistic Director of The Pantaloons theatre company. His publications include Popular Shakespeare (Palgrave, 2009) and a handbook on Webster's The White Devil (Palgrave, 2012).
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  • I could see why the Afghan company wanted to do this farcical comedy, as it simultaneously flew in the face of preconceptions about ‘The Afghan experience’ whilst, in its darker moments (all three of them!) it still remained true to the realities of contemporary Afghan life.  For example, the singing, dancing, drinking and sexual innuendo (and there was lots of seaside postcard innuendo) were all foregrounded and celebrated.  The fact that the production opened in music, which is judged un-Islamic by certain, more Puritan schools of thought, and was banned by the Taliban, is a statement in itself, as is the women showing their hair, ironically only covering it as they headed offstage into the play’s ‘outdoors’. In fact, the production’s ‘edgy silliness’ was what made it one of the most subversive of the productions I saw. Importantly, however, I loved the Muslim calls to prayer that indicated the passage of time, because instead of secularising the production, it reminded that the audience that Islamic belief and culture can embrace this exuberance, even if not currently in Kabul.
    Thanks also for the links and the wonderful audio recordings.
    I’ve blogged on this at ‘Shakespeare Travels’ (http://saffronatstudy.wordpress.com/2012/07/04/globe-to-globe-comedy-of-errors-from-afghanistan-carry-on-kabul/) – I hope you don’t think I’m self-publicizing, but I believe the editors want Year of Shakespeare to be a record of diverse responses to the World Shakespeare festival. 

  • Thank you so much, Steve and Paul, for bringing this remarkable production alive to those of us unfortunately not able to be there.  It’s a revelatory reminder of what theatre can do, and of the healing power of silliness!

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