Fri, Sep 09, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Shakespeare arrives in Kabul

DESERT DRAMA The liberation of the country from the Taliban and its cultural oppression has seen the revival of Kabul's once-flourishing theater

AP , KABUL

The audience watches a performance of Love's Labours Lost, by William Shakespeare in the Babur Garden of Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday. Afghan people and foreigners gathered to watch Shakespeare's comedy, which has been adapted for the local culture in an effort to help revive a once-thriving theater scene and to promote peace in a country riven by ethnic hatred and still wracked by violence after decades of war.

PHOTO: AP

Four centuries after the famous bard's death, one of his plays has been adapted for the local culture in an effort to help revive a once-thriving theater scene and to promote peace in a country riven by ethnic hatred and still wracked by violence after decades of war.

"Theater is the best way to communicate messages in Afghanistan, whether it be about peace, democracy or women's rights. It's much more popular than television," said Aziz Elyas, an Afghan playwright. "But during the Taliban's time, it wasn't allowed. They said Islam forbid it."

The art form, though, did not fade and the US Agency for International Development has even started using roving troupes of actors to put on plays in rural areas to educate people about landmark legislative elections this month.

In the past week, Love's Labor's Lost, one of Shakespeare's lesser-known works, has been performed in the capital to packed audiences of local royalty, diplomats, aid workers, residents and street kids.

The play had been translated into Dari, one of the country's two main languages, and the plot recast slightly so it takes place in Afghanistan with local characters, rather than French ones that the bard used in 1594.

But the central theme of love remained unchanged.

"Shakespeare is so adaptable because he writes universal truths of human experience," said Steven Landrigan, the play's co-adaptor and a native of Boston.

The story now is about a fictitious king of Kabul and three friends who vow to fast, sleep little and have no contact with women so they can study hard and become great scholars -- reminiscent of the values the Taliban preached before the Islamic fundamentalist regime was ousted four years ago.

But the plan slowly unravels when a princess from Herat, a picturesque city in rolling hills in western Afghanistan, comes to visit with her three pretty handmaidens.

The slapstick tale twists and turns with secrets of romance and mistaken identity.

The actresses do not hide behind veils or all-encompassing burqas, like most women on the streets outside. The young characters also openly flirt -- taboo in a country where men and women are not supposed to speak to each other unless they are related.

There are passionate declarations of love and hearts' desires, unusual for most young Afghan couples: Their marriages are arranged by parents who rarely consider matters of affection.

It's hardly a tale the Taliban would have approved, but judging by the cheers and whoops from the audience, many Afghans did.

"It's a story about the survival of romantic love in difficult circumstances, like in Muslim countries and especially Afghanistan," said Malcolm Jardine, from the British Council, which sponsored the show.

The play ran for five nights, the finale under the stars in Kabul's Bagh-e-Babur, a small park fiercely fought over during the civil war in the early 1990s, and amid the remains of the tomb of the founder of the Moghul empire, which ruled India for 300 years.

Midway through the performance, the Islamic evening call to prayer wafted over the audience from a nearby mosque. Few stirred, engrossed in the drama unfolding onstage.

Afghanistan had a flourishing theater scene before it was obliterated by war. It started centuries ago with storytellers enacting religious myths and legends. Then, in the 1940s, modern theater was born.

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