The odds were against them: Taliban suicide bombers laid siege to their rehearsal space and the search for actresses in ultra-conservative Afghanistan was long and arduous.
However, come late May, a band of Afghan performers will be staging a play by William Shakespeare in their native Dari at London’s Globe Theatre, part of a cultural festival designed to lead up to the Olympics.
“We took a comedy because the Afghans don’t want to do tragedy, they have lived enough tragedy,” German-Syrian director Corinne Jaber said of choosing Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s farcical, slapstick play of mistaken identity.
The project would allow Afghans to defend a culture severely ruptured by 30 years of war and conflict, said local celebrity Nabi Tanha, who plays a lead role of Antipholus of Ephesus and debuted to Western audiences in the Oscar-nominated Afghan film The Kite Runner.
“Slowly and gradually, we are trying to rebuild our arts and theater again after they were destroyed by fighting,” he said before donning a gray silk turban for a scene.
Afghan-made costumes with traditional fabrics, Afghan music, Afghan place names as well as local renditions of the characters — Antipholus of Ephesus is renamed Arsalan — complement the original Shakespearean text in Dari.
The play is part of “Globe to Globe,” a celebration of the Bard in which all his 38 plays will be performed in 38 languages by 38 companies in a six-week festival that begins on his birthday on April 23, and includes troupes from South Sudan and ex-Soviet Georgia.
It is part of the London 2012 Festival, itself the climax of the Cultural Olympiad, a four-year celebration of arts and culture in Britain leading up to the London Summer Olympics.
“It is a huge honor for me to act in a Shakespeare play and in a country where he has a dedicated theater,” said Farzana Sultani, one of three actresses in the play.
Soft spoken and clad in trainers and a flowing blue hijab, the 21-year-old lamented the hurdles faced by women who want to work and act.
“We have to satisfy our families and justify why we want to work as they don’t have a very open view of society,” she said.
Producer Roger Granville pointed to the irony in finding Afghan actresses, saying it would have been simpler to live up to Shakespearean traditions by having an all-male cast. In the time of the Bard, actors cross-dressed as women.
“In Afghanistan that would have been all too easy ... [but] let’s not beat around the bush, it’s been really, really tough to find actresses,” he said.
Underlining the challenge, one of the three actresses — an Afghan refugee — comes from as far away as Canada.
Though Afghans are devotees of Bollywood films and boast a rich musical legacy, the livelihood of its film industry is threatened by violence and lack of quality equipment and theater was never given a proper chance to evolve and flourish.
The bulk of the funding for Jaber’s theater company Roy-e-Sabs, roughly meaning “Path of Hope,” to rehearse and travel to London comes from the British Council, Granville said.
The austere rule of the Islamist Taliban banned theater outright and though they were toppled a decade ago, performers today, especially women, complain of threats from the group and pressure from disapproving relatives who deem acting un-Islamic and too Western-leaning.