Zia Mohyeddin column
country for decades, the shocking atrocities of the Afghan civil wars have
rendered it one of those historical events considered too appallingly
horrific to be remembered, represented or even named. Still referring to the
devastating period as “the events,” the Afghans employ a somewhat
nondescript, yet very telling colloquialism for a war, which destroyed a good
portion of Kabul’s physical and psychological infrastructure. In the larger
historical narrative of Near East, the Afghan wars have become emblematic of
the political fragility and a tragically unheeded reminder of the potential
for violence smouldering under the surface of postcolonial societies. Yet
despite the immense hangover of the civil strife, its critical discussion
remains contained within particular discourses, such as the controversial
reconstruction of the city centre and the pioneering literary responses to
the war years.
Shakespeare in Kabul,
however, offers an innovative means of interrogating the often-contested
boundaries of artistic and historical representation.
Afghanistan is a country
carved out of violence. With a woefully short tradition of theatre:
performances dating back to the 1920s; or Kabul University’s theatre
programmes cut down by civil war; or the sole modern theatre built by the
Germans now lying in ruins, it has, nevertheless, staged real-life dramas
(read tragedies) since time immemorial, based on conquests, intrigues,
conspiracies, coup d’états, civil strife and factionalism. It has been
home to the Hazarajat, the Dari-ban, the Pashtuns, the Soviets, the
Mujahideen, the Taliban and now the Americans who’ve finally arrived —
equipped with NATO supplies and UN-funded NGOs — to stabilise a war-ravaged
Foundation for Culture and Civil Society, housed in a 150-year old mansion in
what once used to be Kabul’s outskirts, is another feather in the crown.
Headed by an enlightened Dutchman Robert Kluijver in 2005, the year the
story’s based; it was here that the first-ever Shakespearean production in
Afghanistan was jointly conceived by Stephen Landrigan and Corinne Jaber. In
the spring of 2005, anything seemed possible; optimism prevailed. Violence
was down, and everything seemed to be returning to normality. “Ensnared in
the enchantment spun by its roses, its grand arches and doorways, its
terraces and balconies…so many places for entrances and exits, “Landrigan
turned to Jaber to say softly, “We must do a show here.” To which she
whispered back: “Yes…Shakespeare.”
Thus the project
eponymously titled ‘Shakespeare in Kabul’ began.
And that’s how the Bard
made his debut appearance in Kabul in 2005. Landrigan and Jaber first met on
an expedition to Mazar-i-Sharif where Kluijver had organised a festival of
music. Stephen Landrigan, an
American playwright and director, had come to Kabul to chronicle a US-based
educational programme in order to pay off his financial backers after the
commercial failure of his last play at the Edinburgh Festival. Corinne Jaber,
a Paris-based stage actor of tremendous repute, had come to Kabul to visit a
friend. Jaber of German and Syrian descent had worked with Peter Brook, made
several appearances at Les Bouffes du Nord, and won the Moliere Award for The
Beast on the Moon.
Shakespeare in Kabul penned
by Stephen Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar captures the triumphs and foibles of
the actors as they march through the pages of a non-fictional account in a
cavalcade. Divided into three broad chapters, ‘Exposition, Climax and
Resolution’, the account follows the slow, distressing drift of choosing
the ‘right’ play to be performed before the Afghans that spoke about
transformation and disenfranchisement not just of place but of spirit. “A
tragedy play is too soon now” came the shout followed by “We have lived
tragedy for three decades of war. We don’t want to do tragedy”. So
Love’s Labour’s Lost became the ultimate contender. Certainly the play
pushed the limits on rules about mingling of the sexes, by featuring four men
and four women together in the cast, amazingly without negative audience
feedback. The most compelling sub-chapters in the book recount the stories
re-enacted by female actors from real-life events during the auditions; their
angst, their frustrations, their pain and anguish all spilling forth in a
flood of emotions.
Casting was a challenge
though Jaber managed to recruit big names: Marina Gulbahari, known for her
role in the film Osama which had garnered America’s Golden Globe and
Cannes’ AFCAE Award; Nabi Tanha who appears in The Kite Runner; and the
female actor Breshna Bahar who’d done a role in Bulbul. The problem of
putting together unrelated men and women chafed, however. For weeks they
wouldn’t sit next to one another.
funding from the British Council, and without any Dari version of Shakespeare
save the one translated into archaic Farsi by an Iranian scholar, the play
kicked off first in the magnificent garden palace of the Foundation for
Culture and Civil Society, then the crumbling Queen’s Palace in Kabul, and
finally in the Citadel in Herat. Women favoured Central Asian attires with
headscarves et al over burqa, and men wore shalwar kameez. The only props
employed were kilims.
Good feelings sadly
didn’t last. Around that time, a US military vehicle lost control and
ploughed into a crowd in Kabul killing several Afghans. A bomb went off at
Herat University to protest the education of women and Parwin Mushtahel’s
husband was killed in apparent protest of her participation. But the spark
had been lit. The organisers of World Shakespeare Festival invited Corinne
Jaber to London to participate in Richard II. “Afghans don’t do
tragedy,” she told them. The troupe, now called Roy-e-Sabz performed The
Comedy of Errors at the Globe Theatre in London.
Love’s Labour’s Lost
explores the constant slippage between historical and fictional narration
which occurs in the performance of memory. Although the success of the play
did not depend upon the audience’s consciousness of the work’s fictive
nature, there were constant hints that slipped through the cracks.
Landrigan’s and Omar’s detailed stitching of the Bard’s costume in his
presentation format that transforms fictional into historical narration,
consequently dismantling the opposition often built between the two forms of
telling and retelling. More than that, by blurring the boundaries between
history and fiction, Landrigan unearthed the performance of memory’s
involvement in the construction of all narrative forms. Art, conventionally
perceived as inhabiting a more aesthetic value in fictional representation,
thereby allowed Landrigan to ask the question of what can be imagined about
historical reconstruction, and more specifically about the traumatic
experiences of the civil wars.
If theatre cannot transform
the world, it can at least influence the representation that men or women
make of it. It can contribute to the struggle against indifference or, more
prosaically, permit us to know one aspect of the life of the Other, and
understand its difference from our own. With this hope or ambition, the great
expanse of time permitted profundity, but also a form of non-temporality that
gave the production as a whole unique consistency. The production was charged
with intention, with ethics, and with meaning, and marked by respect for the
With infinite care, the
director defined his frames and his aesthetic, gave droit de cite —
literally, the right to the city, or the right of belonging — to those who
did not have it. He insisted on the dignity of the human being, while
reality, beauty, and truth fought for space and meaning in his work. Love’s
Labour’s Lost moved beyond self-expression, addressing the intelligence of
men and women, with the intention of including them also, in a tragedy as
grotesque as it is devoid of meaning which we call, by default, history.
Shakespeare in Kabul
By Stephen Landrigan and
Qais Akbar Omar
Price: Rs 2185
If you have bought
this beautiful little book because you have an unquenchable curiosity about
people’s “affairs” — in the societal parlance of the word— you
should try to sell it to a gullible friend. But if you want to enjoy wit and
satire and have a taste for humour, of which there is so much dearth in this
country, then read it and read it again. You will not be disappointed. The
book has seven sections and fifty-five articles published in The News in the
last two years.
These humorous sketches
need to be placed in the sub-genre of Pakistani literature in English which I
have called “prose” in my almost forgotten book A History of Pakistani
Literature in English. The chapter is only 16 pages long and yet it was
difficult to find humour which could fit the slot. I wanted to leave out
biographies and boring sermons which made the selection so difficult. Finally
I settled for the works, newspaper pieces of course, of Omar Kureishi, Anwar
Mooraj, Haleem Abdul Aziz, M.R. Kayani, and, of course, the inimitable Khalid
Hasan. Some of these people are no more and those who do exist have given up
the humorous column. I too once wrote a column called ‘It’s a Don’s
Life’ in The Frontier Post about a university professor’s reflections on
the unscrupulous practices of his brothers-in-law (one a retired general and
the other a federal secretary) but gave up after a few years—or was it
merely months. Wit and humour is hard to sustain week in and week out as
anyone who has tried such things will tell you.
As such there was a gap in
our literature in English which Adiah Afraz has tried to fill in. Her
earliest columns are the ones which I like best being in the central
tradition of political and social wit. There is the intimacy of absurd
conversation, the incongruous situation and the overall response to that.
Irony is tongue in cheek and and wit scintillates asking the reader to laugh
at the absurdities of our existence. Take the ‘Sitara and the Stinky
Journalist’. The conversation is hilarious ending with:
‘So will you shut up when
you get your free Sitara.’
will you when they give you yours?’
maybe it is’.
Such pieces of sparkling
wit abound but cannot be reproduced at length outside the context in which
they were written. They have to be read to be enjoyed.
from the conversation is the absurdity of the situation: ATMs closed in the
morning; policeman ready to hand over a stiff sentence to the writer for some
imaginary violation; an under-aged girl hitting her from behind. And all this
against the background of power outages and a husband whose role is to take
everything in his stride as the kind of fuss women make. That is the stuff of
which the sketches are written.
last few sketches, however, are in support of Imran Khan. However, in this
sub-genre of literature, readers do not expect a wit, especially a social and
political satirist, to actively support any political personality seriously.
They are supposed to keep away with a jest on the lips and irony never far
behind. So while Adiah Afraz, the person can support Imran Khan as much as
she likes, Afraz the columnist must be more subtle. However, she calls
herself his “fan” without irony. To emphasise this point once again, this
would be fine in anyone else and we have a right to support anyone we like
without having to defend ourselves. But those of us who aspire to wit and
humour must also understand that a political satirist is bound by the
conventions of his writing not to express this in columns. But, of course,
there is another way out. Adiah could abandon humour and wit and dedicate
herself to being a serious supporter of her political hero. She can still
write columns but they would be different in quality than most of her present
output. Moreover, for writing serious political columns she would have to
read more about the history, politics and economy of Pakistan. That would be
a new experiment and one for which her many admirers will wait impatiently.
wish I could praise the quality of printing. The jacket is fine but there are
empty spaces and wrong spellings inside. Surely the author deserves better.
By Adiah Afraz
Drama explores human
relationships and human complexities; drama unfolds the demons that are
buried in our souls.
There is no need for drama
to compete with fiction in which so much more in the way of detail can be
supplied. Drama is the art of elemental. The genius of theatre, its
brilliance, intellect, taste, has all gone into a search for the elemental.
Much that in fiction can be gradual and multiple has, in drama, to be sudden
and single. The dramatist exploits the possibilities of suddenness and
singleness. W. B. Yeats said that “Drama is, in the most obvious way, what
all the arts are upon a last analysis.”
The theatre of the Greeks,
with its traditional austerity of setting on the hill-side bred poetic drama
of universal theme and cosmic expression. It was the spoken word that
controlled what Euripedes and Sophoclese’ audience saw — the words
contained and created the drama.
likewise, bred poetic drama, but now there was a difference. The confinement
within the ‘wooden O’ (this is how Shakespeare described the stage on
which his plays were presented) could house the particular as well as the
universal, the domestic as well as the cosmic. The spoken word, however,
remained supreme. The task of bringing home drama (classical drama) lies
wholly with the actor— and particularly with his voice, his gesture and his
Shakespeare rarely offers
any stage directions in his texts. This does not mean that the great actors
of his own era — Burbage, Alleyn — simply stepped forward and spoke their
soliloquies standing in one position. Shakespeare (who had a considerable say
in the staging of his own plays) wouldn’t have allowed it. Actors,
throughout the ages, have found ways of moving about while delivering the
Bard’s long speeches, as befitted their genius.
Olivier was one of the
greatest 20th century
Shakespearean actors and his Macbeth was one of his best performances that it
has been my privilege to see. The way he handled “Is this a dagger?”
speech still haunts my memory. After dismissing the servant with the laconic
message to Lady Macbeth, he advanced to the very front of the stage. Turing
to assure himself that the servant had gone, he was confronted with his
hallucination which first puzzled, then excited him. His tone was confident.
It was with a show of eagerness that he pounced to clutch the dagger. The
direction of his hand fixed the dagger’s position. His eager movement took
him past the point and he wheeled round in bewilderment so that we suddenly
saw his face transfixed with abject dismay.
The miming of hallucination
is something I have seen in other Macbeths. (It is well within the compass of
many actors). It was in the visionary expansion of the sequel that Olivier
showed his genius.
The soliloquy continues:
Now o’er the one half
Nature seems dead, and
The curtained sleep,
Pale Hacate’s offerings;
Alarum’d by his sentinel,
Whose howl’s his watch,
his sleathly pace
With Tarqun’s ravishing
moves like a ghost...”
Olivier’s eye in a frenzy
rolling, comprehended the hemisphere, his voice darkening after the bright
shrillness of panic dropped a tone on the word “dead.” We were made to
see, unmistakeably, the curtained sleep of Duncan at the moment shut up in
content and we felt the sinister echo of Banquo’s wicked dreams — the
cursed thoughts that nature gives way to in repose.
The kaleidoscope turned,
and presented us with the baleful ritual of the weird sisters. Then,
unforgettably, Olivier shrugged his body to impersonate withered murder,
heard the wolf’s alarum — the howl on Olivier’s lips was a howl indeed
to curdle the blood —and moved with stealthy pace towards the staircase.
Only a virtuoso player with
his trained voice and expert gesture can present to us the rich texture of
Shakespeare’s score. The tone of Lear’s voice in the last scene, with its
initial clamour of wailing, the agonised restraint of Othello in the last
scene when he says “Soft you, a word or two before you go” are moments
which make us aware that Shakespeare’s design is to show us how imperfect
men grow to become perfect.
The task of the
Shakespearean actor is to animate, to bring to life, to communicate to his
audience the substance of the words of Shakespeare’s text. These contain
within themselves the drama, and so rich is this substance that it is seldom
to be confined within the three walls of the picture stage. Hamlet
soliloquising over the ills of his present life; “How weary, stale, flat
and unprofitable seem to me all the uses, of this world...Tis an weeded
garden, that grows to seed...” Lear urging Cordelia to join him in
“Taking upon’s the mystery of things”, evokes half a dozen pictures in
as many lines.
Shakespeare’s effect the actor must make these seen by the audience not
with the natural vision but the mind’s eye. This was easier to achieve in
the Elizabethan playhouse where the actor stood on the great platform in
close and intimate contact with the audience.
Take the world’s most
popular soliloquy: “To be or not to be...” There is a whole series of
images contained in this one soliloquy. “the whips and scorns of time”,
“the oppressor’s wrong” “the proud man’s contumely”, “... the
law’s delay, the insolence of office., etc etc.” If a film-maker were to
aim at photographing the whole series of images contained in this one
soliloquy the camera could not work fast enough. And what about the sound
track? It if tries to cope with the “whips and scorns of time” one
moment, and “the sea of troubles” the next, the tragedy would never end.
You cannot photograph poetic drama whose appeal is not merely through the eye
but for the most part through the mind’s eye, as prompted by the words, the
movements and the gestures of the actor.
pattern lies not so much in the plot but in the succession of episodes that
mark the development of the story. It is in the substance of the text, the
constantly shifting narrative, wit, word-play and irony. And all these
elements— as well as the emotional inter-action and philosophical
speculation —touch the mind and heart of the audience through their ears
and through the mind’s eye.