Afghan actors take on Shakespeare

In Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2005, a chance meeting between a French actress and an American playwright led to the country's first theater production of Shakespeare's "Love's Labor's Lost."

The production was both historic and audacious. Afghan actors and actresses appeared together on stage for the first time in nearly 35 years, Shakespeare was translated into Dari, the form of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, and the production was open for all audiences. The whole idea sounds crazy, and to the people involved, it was so crazy they just had to do it. Aah, theater folks. This unlikely story is chronicled in the book "Shakespeare in Kabul," by Quais Akbar Omar and Stephen Landrigan. Both authors were also involved in the production. Omar, a journalist, served as assistant director and interpreter for French actress and director Corinne Jaber. Landrigan, a playwright, helped translate the script.

In spring 2005, Afghans and Americans were optimistic. The violence, though ongoing, was down considerably. National elections had happened and life seemed to be slowly returning to normal. After Jaber and Landrigan decided to produce a play, the two somehow managed to secure funding and hire a translator to convert Elizabethan language, puns and all into a complicated language.

They gathered a troupe of actors and settled on a romantic comedy because, as one actor explained to the author, "We have lived tragedy for three decades of war. We don't want to do tragedy." Still, even a comedy posed some problems. "Love's Labor's Lost" is a lively play about a king and three noblemen who vow to study, fast and be celibate for three years, but their pact unravels when four beautiful women arrive in their kingdom. The play has some bawdy moments that conflict with Afghan prohibitions against flirtation and some types of physical humor.

Jaber made the play more culturally accessible and added a Bollywood-style musical score. She whittled the script down from more than 2,700 lines to 1,000 while managing to keep the heart of the story. The play was a hit and continues to run throughout the year in various locations.

The real focus of the book isn't so much on the production itself, but the closely knit theater troupe as it works to create a strong play in the face of so many obstacles. These are brave thespians, risking their lives and the lives of their loved ones simply by performing. Nevertheless, they all firmly believe that the arts, particularly theater, will be essential in revitalizing Afghanistan.

There's a great chapter in which the actors describe what the play means to them. One said that "Love's Labor's Lost" is very much about the Taliban. "In a roundabout way ... it is all about their nonsense rules," he tells the others. Another actor saw it as a call to embrace the joys of life: "The deepest message in this play: Let's enjoy every colorful season, the golden earth and the blue sky, and listen to our hearts, not to our negative emotions and feelings."

The actors studied the text closely, recited poetry, and discussed how Shakespeare can connect the Afghan people. Theirs is a lovely story and reminder of the power of theater and the strength of people when they come together for something they love.

Like any group of artists, the troupe members are excited, nervous and temperamental. Some of the funniest moments in the book are when egos, tempers and cultural misunderstandings all collide. There are loud fights, slammed doors and people storming off and quitting. Still, they overcome their differences and work as a team to put on the show. While this story is definitely not without tragedy, it is above everything else a hopeful story, a celebration of courage and the sheer power of art.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at

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