Eastern European Hamlets Panel Discussion

My current research is on Hamlet in late-communist and post-communist society, so it’s jolly good of my friend Aneta Mancewitz to co-ordinate a panel discussion especially for me! (So, okay, not really just for me…)

Eastern European Hamlets

Wednesday 30th January 2013

Venue:  New Studio, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

Time:  17.30-19.30

Click on the link above for more details.

It will be wonderful to meet up again with Dr. Nicoleta Cinpoes, who organised the Worldwide Hamlet conference in Craiova in 2009 where I first met many of these people.  As people gave their papers in that industrial Romanian city, which also hosts a major international Shakespeare festival every two years (and we act like the World Shakespeare Festival was a new idea!), there were definite recurring themes – of which Hamlet and the legacy of 1989 in post-communist spaces was particularly potent.

(C) Meno Fortas

(C) Meno Fortas

This panel will explore Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, Lithuanian and Yugoslav Hamlets.

The importance of Eastern European reconfigurings of Hamlet was illustrated during the Globe to Globe Festival when Shakespeare’s most famous play was performed, not by the Brits, but by the Lithuanians (left).  My blog review of Nekrosius’ Hamlet can be read here. My performance review of a Polish Hamlet directed by Monika Pęcikiewicz is forthcoming in the journal Shakespeare and is published online already.  If you would like a free copy please contact me and I will send you the link.  It originally started life as a couple of Shakespeare Travels blogposts, of course.

Other speakers will include the ever eloquent Prof. Dr. Boika Sokolova,  Dr. Sonia Massai, and Aneta  herself, among others.

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The Yellowface Debate: Orphan of Zhao Roundtable and comments on Western Opera casting practices

Roundtable discussion: Interculturalism, universality and the right to representation in the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao. Friday 23rd November, 3-5pm, Centre for Creative Collaboration, Acton Street, London.
Speakers: Dr. Broderick Chow, Brunel University, Dr. Amanda Rogers, Swansea University, Dr. Ashley Thorpe, University of Reading (chair), Daniel York, Actor, writer, director and Vice Chair of Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee.*
(c) RSC

(c) RSC

Following on from my Orphan of Zhao post on ‘yellowface’ and colourblind casting, I attended the above roundtable last November hosted by the Asian Performing Arts Forum.  But, well, what with teaching, marking, looking after my young family, article writing, PhD and Christmas, I still haven’t written up my notes from it.  So, luckily for me, panellist Dr Amanda Rogers (University of Swansea) has done a sterling job at addressing the issues in a series of posts on her blog Theatrical Geographies, and Anna Chen/MadamMiaow recorded the whole event and put it on Youtube.  Thanking them both, I’m shamelessly reblogging! Click the link here:

Orphan of Zhao update and roundtable.

My own review of the production, and the aspects I found both most potent (there was much that was potent and beautiful) and most problematic (there was much that was problematic), will be coming soon.
After my initial post on The Orphan of Zhao, my friend Rosie Carlton-Willis commented on my post to let me know about the situation in the world of Western Opera, which, frankly, makes the RSC look like pioneers of diversity in comparison, and which also illustrates just how far this debate extends.  My students will also cite the sci-fi movie Cloud Altlas.  I’m copying part of Rosie’s comment here:

The weekend (15-16 December) was interesting. After some intense conversation on the use of blackface in opera, media responses to this phenomenon and related issues, I went to the cinema to see a production of Verdi’s ‘Aida’, beamed live from the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. Wonderful singing, but of course, in an opera which does not have a single white character, there was not a single black artist in a principal role, and the two Ethiopian characters, Aida and her father, were in dark makeup, to differentiate them from the Egyptian characters.

I looked on the Met’s website to see their casting for this season. In a season of 29 full scale opera productions (including an ‘Otello’ – yes, white tenor in blackface), there are maybe 5 people of colour named in principal roles on the website. One African American artist, one East Asian and a small handful who would maybe identify as Latino/Hispanic. Does this represent the balance of available talent? I doubt it.

I’ve tended to think that for achieving racial justice in the opera industry (some way to go yet…) so-called ‘colourblind casting’ would usually be the best option – casting solely on voice-type and ability, not necessarily relating the race of the character to the race of the performer. But this is not what I’m seeing at the Met this season: instead, what I’m seeing is an overwhelming bias towards hiring white performers in all roles. Is there one solution for the opera industry? Does a more just state of affairs involve hiring only black artists for ‘Aida’ and East Asian artists for ‘Madama Butterfly’ and ‘Turandot’ and by extension, only white artists for ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ and the ‘Ring Cycle’? That looks something like justice but seems restrictive to me, given that a dramatic tenor, say, may be equally well suited to Otello, Radames, Siegfried and other roles, and should not be restricted to a smaller number on account of race. But the current situation is outrageous. Is it time white artists started turning down roles like Aida? Singers and scholars, I’d welcome your thoughts. By Rosie Carlton-Willis

Carol Chillington Rutter’s chapter ‘Shadowing Cleopatra’ in her book Enter the Body: Representations of Women on the Shakespeare Stage challenges us to stop and think about the extent to which we accept without questioning traditional casting practices – and looks at the tendency of liberals to defend or justify these practices.

* Amanda mentions that none of the RSC team who were invited to the roundtable came, but for the record I would like to note that my friend Dr. Li Ruru was touring China at the time with a group of Leeds University student actors performing Cao Yu’s The Sun is Not for Us.  Ruru and I may take different positions on the casting of the RSC production, but she works tirelessly to promote Chinese theatre in British academia and beyond.

Madam Miaow makes mincemeat of the RSC over non-Chinese casting

(c) RSC

I have to admit to feeling just a little bit sorry for Greg Doran, appointed new artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and actual director of its upcoming World Elsewhere season.  After all, who wants to be made into cat’s mincemeat by the magnificent Madam Miaow?  Madam Miaow, aka steampunk poet and Chinese cultural activist Anna Chen, is leading the campaign to ‘out’ Doran and the RSC as culturally insensitive (at best) or institutionally racist (at worst) after they cast predominantly non-Chinese as leading roles in the classical Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao, by Ji Junxiang (紀君祥). To add insult to injury, the poster only mentions the name of its adaptor, James Fenton.  Furthermore, the three Chinese cast members play ‘two dogs and a maid’… Admittedly, the maid is a fairly main part and the dogs are talented puppeteers, but in all the RSC’s research did they not realise the cultural significance of equating Chinese with dogs? So ok, the infamous ‘No dogs or Chinese’ sign over the gates of Huangpu Park in foreign controlled 1920s Shanghai may be an urban myth: what the notice actually stated was ‘no dogs or bicyles’ – oh yes, and that the park was for ‘foreigners’ only. But surely, in a series that also contains a German and a Russian classic, Brecht’s Life of Galileo and Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, the RSC could have stretched to a third of the cast being British East Asian, at least.  Madam Miao’s campaign has not only hit The Guardian, it is rapidly going global, now taken up by the AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition), who are calling for a US campaign to resist the RSC bringing ‘their practice of exclusion’ with them when they take two family productions, Matilda and the young people’s King Lear, to New York.

Spot the ‘ethnically ambiguous’ BEA. Yellow Academy Summer School, 2012 (c) Yellow Earth

Now, I have to confess that on one level my interest in this story is personal.  Not only did I live in China for five years, but my daughter, currently doing A-levels, is hoping to go to drama school.  One day she suddenly said, unprompted by anything I had said, ‘What’s the point of me doing drama? Even if I get into drama school, I’ll only ever get a chance to play waitresses or a Thai prostitute! I mean, you never see East Asians on telly – I could never do Shakespeare or a costume drama!’ My daughter is half South East Asian (Lao, not Thai, but most people don’t know the difference).  Alarmed by her defeatism, I passed on to her an advert for a youth drama summer school run by the BEA theatre troupe Yellow Earth.  She successfully auditioned and spent 2 weeks last summer at the Yellow Academy.  Out of the sixteen participants, she was the only one of non-Chinese descent.  Initially, she was a little disappointed by this: clearly she was marginalised within the marginalised, but then a casting director came to talk to this eager group of young wannabes.  This man was sympathetic to issues around casting faced by BEAs.  Unless there is a real cultural shift, their only likelihood of getting work is still by playing waiters.  Then he looked at my daughter: ‘You’re lucky though.  You’re ethnically ambiguous.  You could play any type of Asian.  In fact, I could even cast you as Romanian!’ Mmm, so her future holds being represented as a Thai prostitute or a trafficked Eastern European… Of course, things are changing.  A young actor at the China in Britain: Myths and Realities: Theatre/Performance and Music conference held at the University of Westminster earlier this year bitterly noted that BEAs could get major TV  roles – in SciFi.  Afterall, since Star Trek, there’s always been a geeky or a sexy (or a geeky, sexy) Chinese or Japanese in  any self respecting team of alien fighters.

At China in Britain, BEA theatre stalwarts, the actor David Yip (best known for his role as The Chinese Detective in the ’80s), actor/writer Lucy Sheen, and David Lee-Jones, who was recently the first BEA to play a Shakespearean king in the UK, pointed out that it was not only the fault of casting directors if they failed to cast Chinese actors.  They needed to have Chinese actors to cast.  If Chinese parents don’t value their children participating in the arts, then where is this new generation of Chinese actors going to come from, Yip asked.  Interestingly, both he and Lee-Jones are dual heritage and Sheen is adopted: as was the case with the majority of participants at the Yellow Academy. The change has to come from within the community, Yip argued, as it did in the Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities.  (For US readers, ‘Asian’ in the UK tends to refer to Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi, East Asian to Chinese and Japanese)

However, if our national theatres, arts funding bodies, and government (through funding said theatres and bodies) don’t actively participate in ensuring that all sectors of British society are represented on our stages and our screens, aren’t they indeed perpetuating the marginalisation of certain groups in the arts?  Yellow Academy has had its British Arts Council funding reduced so that now it only covers the teaching. As there was no funding for travel and accommodation, it’s not surprising that nearly all the participants came from the South East.

(c) RSC rehearsal photo for 'The Orphan of Zhao'Let’s get back to the RSC.  Why is it a problem that the cast of The Orphan of Zhao is predominantly non-Chinese? The RSC have been making efforts to be less, how shall I put it, white-washed. The current production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Iqbal Khan and starring Meera Syal and Paul Bhattacharjee, is selling out in the West End.  Deborah Shaw was behind the World Shakespeare Festival, and she and her husband’s Iraqi Theatre Company’s Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad literally shook the RSC audiences out of their comfort zone last spring.  And Greg Doran’s civil partner, Anthony Sher, returned to his native South Africa, bringing back a multi-cultural production of The Tempest which was both a post-colonial critique and a cautious celebration of the new South Africa.  However, the RSC’s following argument is deeply problematic:

We intend to present The Orphan of Zhao in our own way, just as a theatre company in China might explore Shakespeare.  Having absorbed something of Chinese conventions and dramatic idioms, we want to approach the play with a diverse cast and develop our own ways of telling this ancient story and thus explore its universality. (Follow this thread on their facebook page, too)

Firstly, the phrase ‘our own way’ is (unintentionally, I believe) culturally imperialist. What do they mean by ‘our’? And who is the oppositional ‘their’? BEAs? Secondly, a Chinese company presenting Shakespeare’s characters as Chinese is about appropriation, and, until very recently, about subaltern appropriation: Caliban getting the island.  When Lin Zhaohua presented Hamlet as a contemporary urban Chinese youth back in late 1989, early 1990, he wasn’t aiming for ‘universality’, a concept which was exploded by cultural critics decades ago.  Nor was he bowing at the feet of a great Briton. He was rejecting a Soviet model that presented Shakespeare as depoliticized foreign theatre, and instead usurping Shakespeare’s tragedy for his own dissenting purposes (see Li Ruru, Shashabiya). Thirdly, although Doran’s cast is multicultural(ish), it’s still not enough precisely because Chinese and East Asians are so invisible in the British media and arts in the first place.

(c) RSC. Would this production be less controversial if they hadn’t gone for these beautiful ‘Chinois’ costumes?

I opened this piece by saying that I felt a little sorry for Greg Doran.  He’s not a racist – but he is blinkered, and he does have a tendency to say some very odd things (much to Madam Miaow and her readers’ delight).  A few years ago I challenged him about the lack of diversity in RSC casting during a Q&A at the British Shakespeare Association’s Global/Local Shakespeare conference, convened by Sonia Massai, who edited Worldwide Shakespeares.  He acknowledged that the RSC needed to be more inclusive, and this season is part of that acknowledgement.  He also said that he would never not cast anybody because of their race.  All roles are open to all actors whatever their ethnicity, so long as ‘it won’t confuse the audience. I wouldn’t cast different races within one family, for example.’ Pardon?! I pointed out that many people in the audience, including myself, came from families comprised of different races! ‘Oh, um…’ he began.

But do you know what, deep down I’m glad that Doran got it wrong, and that Madam Miaow noticed. Why? Because by the time my daughter graduates from drama school, if indeed that is what she decides to do, she might get to play Shakespeare’s queens, or Helena, or even her namesake, Imogen.

And I will try to catch all three productions in a World Elsewhere.

 

Global Hamlets Symposium, Rhodes College

This free afternoon public symposium at Rhodes College, Memphis, TN, sounds a treat and is exactly my area of research… However, the new semester will have just started, and I’m teaching the day before.  Forget the fact that a round trip ticket from York, UK, would cancel out the freeness of the event! Which is a shame – I quite fancy the King in the morning and the Bard in the afternoon!

(c) Global Hamlets Symposium, Rhodes College

But the Global Hamlets Symposium , for anyone who is in the area, is not to be missed.  Two of the speakers, Alex (Alexa) Huang and Margaret Litvin, have been at the forefront of promoting awareness of Chinese and Arab Shakespeares respectively in Western scholarship.  Huang‘s Chinese Shakespeares is a fascinating, eclectic study of how Shakespeare was appropriated by Chinese activists, novelists, playwrights and filmakers over the course of the 20C.  It inspired me to pick up  a Peking Foreign Languages Press paperback that had been sitting on my bookshelf since the early 1990s, when I first went out to teach in Mainland China: Lao She’s Mr Ma and Son: a Sojourn in London.  The ex-pat son is an ineffectual  Hamlet figure, a metaphor for the dilemma of modern China between the world wars.  My favourite bit of the book, however, is when the traditionalist Old Man Ma, at a loss for something to do on a wet afternoon, decides to go to the theatre, as he would have done in China.  He then changes his mind because he remembers that in England theatre is just a group of people walking about on a stage and mumbling… Litvin‘s Hamlet’s Arab Journey charts how an idealist young ‘Arab hero Hamlet’ ends up an ineffectual Islamist Hamlet in her detailed and illuminating case-study of Hamlet on the Egyptian stage. Both books are terrific reads, even if you’re not an intercultural performance scholar! I don’t know the work of the third speaker, David  Schalkwyk, but I believe he will be speaking on South African appropriation.

There will also be an array of Hamletian song, spoof and martial arts in performance and on film…

If anyone has any feedback on it, feel free to use my comment boxes!

Chinese classics meet a Midsummer Night’s Dream…

Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2012

Performing China on the Global Stage: a research project coordinated by Dr Li Ruru, University of Leeds

I recently took part in the post-graduate element of the Performing China on the Global Stage project.  This  involved participation in a preparatory workshop with the two student troupes performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, attendance at their performances (The Sun is Not for Us by stage@leeds touring of Leeds University and I Am a Moon by Yesoo of Nanjing University), and a performance analysis and discussion at the Intercultural Performance seminar that ended the week. So, five of us researchers were forced, yes, forced to stay in central Edinburgh during the world-famous Fringe Festival and watch shows! It was torture – magnificent torture!

(c) stage@leeds touring

The Sun Is Not for Us

Golden haired girls dressed in creams and whites argue with tall English boys about their lives and their loves. The girls are sometimes desperate, sometimes stoic, sometimes strong, one time mad. The boys are by turn arrogant, angry or simply careless. Accent indicates class – here is a servant girl,Yorkshire born and bred, there a young master, there the mistress of the house. Perhaps we are in an Edwardian costume drama, except the costumes are minimalist, without place or time.  But then there are the names: Plum, Flower, Ping and, also, the disturbing black and white images projected onto the screen of toes broken and twisted under.The University of Leeds students’ The Sun is Not for Us  was an intercultural appropriation of the women’s stories from four of Cao Yu’s major plays.  Cao Yu was one of China’s founding modern playwrights.  This reworking from multiple sources defamiliarised these early 20C works by excerpting thematic elements about the ‘binding’ of women (physically, emotionally and through family ties) and, in the process, creating a brand new play in which their parallel stories combine to make a powerful indictment of patriarchal systems.  It defamiliarised these canonical Chinese plays further through the largely colourblind casting, which, if it hadn’t been for the broken, bound feet at the opening, and the culturally specific names, could have opened up the play to be located in any pre-feminist society.

I have opened with this performance description because this ‘doubleness’ of seeing, hearing and experiencing summed up the experience of the week’s project for me.

The workshop and seminar (Confucius Institute)

From the workshop at the beginning of the week with the two casts and the directors leading us in improvisational experiments, to the co-authored paper we delivered at the Friday’s seminar, which combined the ideas of six researchers from five countries and several disciplines, we were testing out in practice how intercultural and cross-cultural performance inhabits new liminal creative spaces. During the first workshop, we were divided into groups and asked to devise a short play around a short story – either the traditional Chinese myth of Hou Yi and Chang’E, the Moon Goddess, or the tale of the Farmer and the Pig from Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. As an educator, I often find that cultural stereotypes of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ students are still deeply ingrained in the minds of many university lecturers, who often perceive the Eastern students as passive learners in contrast to their supposedly innovative Western counterparts.  So, I had to mentally applaud the young Leeds student who observed that, whereas all the British groups had devised short plays tightly linked to their source material, every Chinese group had played much more freely with their prompt text, either choosing just one element of the plot to focus on, or inventing additional characters. Those of us who were in multi-cultural groups were challenged to communicate bilingually, but also to explore and combine different conceptions and interpretations for performance. However, we also learnt that we needed to compromise, drawing on the strongest elements, and condensing the performance in terms of language and image to something that all participants could grasp and express.  For example, because we performed bilingually despite some of us having much more limited language skills, we pared the dialogue right down.  Likewise, not having time to explain the concept of the good and bad angels in Dr Faustus or to understand what lay behind a Chinese director’s idea of the main character, a pig, dividing into five pigs before attacking his owner, we took the essence from each idea and our pig divided into two as he recited bits of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy!

(c) yesoo

I am the Moon

The activities and discussion that grew out of the workshop in turn informed our later viewing of the plays.  For example, my ear was attuned to listening out for multiple languages in Nanjing Yesoo’s I am a Moon and thinking about what these different languages signified, because a cast member had commented that the play had undergone several intercultural and structural transformations on it’s journey to the Edinburgh Fringe. Originally written in English by a native Chinese speaker for an American audience, it had then been translated back into Mandarin for a Chinese audience.  When a significantly smaller cast brought it here, they didn’t only cut the dialogue, but they transformed it.  Planning at first to deliver the play in Mandarin and English, they felt this opened the door to play with other languages. As a cast member spoke Cantonese, one of the characters spoke this.  Another character even spoke a made up language, gibberish. In our paper, we explored how these linguistic choices then foregrounded certain thematic ideas. Having each character speak a different language, sometimes to each other, underlined ideas about how impossible it is for two individuals to fully communicate and also heightened the sense of alienation in the production.  Furthermore, the cutting of characters resulted in a layering of monologues, giving the play a filmic quality, linking it generally to ‘city’ films, but also perhaps more specifically to those films by directors such as Wong Kar Wai about exile and existential loneliness.

The Shakespeare Connection

Another parallel was Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One of the Leeds students had described how they had looked for cultural equivalents as a way into their Chinese text.  Excerpted from its original play, his character rejecting the demands of a demanding young servant girl became, in his mind, Demetrius and Helena.  Once I had seen this parallel it spilled over into I am the Moon, even though in this case it did not lie behind the conception of the piece. Nonetheless, its characters, a semi-naked young Asian man masturbating alone in a block of flats, a plump but fiercely intelligent girl talking to herself in a supermarket about the same Asian man she could see through his curtainless windows, a gay Canto-Pop star yearning for his lover, a drunken businessman remembering how he had first kissed his wife, all had equivalents among the lovers lost in the woods.  And, well, if you looked for a metaphor, they had entered that nightmare space of the urban jungle and were journeying dangerously into their subconsciousnesses… Played by a woman as a man (her head cleverly photoshopped onto a man’s body for the large poster next to the bus-stop where she delivered a soliloquy!), this gay Canto-Pop star, by the way, strongly evoked Leslie Cheung in his Passion Tour period. (I adore Leslie Cheung…)

Chinese Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe 2012

Two Dogs (c) Beijing Young Dramatists Association

Two Dogs (c) Beijing Young Dramatists Association

Check out the following Chinese productions at the Edinburgh Fringe:

The Sun is Not for Us performed by stage@leeds touring and directed/produced by David Jiang and Li Ruru.  An intercultural adaptation of Cao Yu’s classic plays by a group of British students transforms early 20th Century Chinese tragedy into a feminist revisioning about the fate of women trapped in the patriarchal system.  Despite the initial images of footbinding, the casting and direction finds parallels with women’s lives in early twentieth century Britain, and in places echoes Shakespeare’s plays. At theSpace on North Bridge, August 10-11, 16.10 (1 hr).

I am a Moon performed by Yesoo Company, Nanjing University. An often funny if bittersweet reflection on Japanese porn, supermarkets, strangers in lifts, and kissing in glasses by four lonely young Chinese urbanites. At theSpace on North Bridge, August 9, 16.10 (1 hr).

Two Dogs performed by Beijing Young Dramatist Association. A hilarious double-act, somewhere between Chinese cross-talk, Samuel Beckett and Morcombe and Wise. ‘Two dog brothers leave their home seeking their dreams’. At Sweet Grassmarket, Aug 8-17, 11.40 (1 hr).

Globe to Globe ‘Comedy of Errors’ from Afghanistan: Carry On Kabul

Comedy of Errors in Dari Persian, directed by Corinne Jabber and performed by Roy-E-Sabs, Globe to Globe Festival, Thursday 31st May: Evening

حالا دست در

دست برویم نه

پشت به پشت

‘Let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.’
 
*Comments are reconstructed from memory and not recorded verbatim.

*’One of the paradoxes of doing a festival like this is that you end up asking people to tell their own story, and then have to tell them that they can’t do the play of their choice as somebody else is already doing it,’ said Tom Bird, the Globe to Globe festival director, at his talk at their Intercultural Shakespeare Symposium.   ‘Another thing is, that you can’t second guess what play a particular company will feel allows them to tell the story that they want to tell.  For example, we offered the Afghans a choice of history plays.  We thought that they would find that a play about civil war really spoke to the Afghan experience… But they wouldn’t have it. “No, we want to do The Comedy of Errors”, they insisted!’

This until recently little-performed play thus became the Afghan offering, and the director of Roy-e-Sabs had certainly caught the Shakespeare zeitgeist as there have also been two or three high-profile British productions this year, including the National Theatre’s starring comedian-turned-Shakespearian actor, Lenny Henry, and Lucian Msamati, Propeller’s touring production, and the RSC.

From the India Times

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, singing, dancing, drinking and sexual innuendo (lots of seaside postcard innuendo) were all foregrounded and celebrated.  The production opened in music, which is judged un-Islamic by certain, more Puritan schools of thought, and was banned by the Taliban.  The women showed their hair, ironically only covering it as they headed offstage into the play’s ‘outdoors’.  As for the kitchen maid, she was played by a bearded man in drag…   All the characters had been renamed and the action was relocated to contemporary post-war Kabul.  Yet the father Eshan (Egeon in the English) faced a very real death threat for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the two-sets of long-lost brothers had added significance in a  nation where families are torn apart by war. As Andrew Dickson has noted in his Guardian review, even some of the funniest comic moments are ‘uncomfortable’.  For instance, Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio, renamed as Arsalan of Samaqand and his servant Boston, arrived from Uzbekistan in western outfits and panama hats.  Arsalan had expensive leather shoes and Boston sported designer trainers.  They stopped to take photos of themselves on their digital cameras, posing with the ‘locals’: lying down on the stage, Boston put an arm around Groundling Laura.  Then a shopkeeper helpfully suggested that they change their clothes into local garb if they didn’t want to get found out by the authorities.  He handed them  traditional ‘Perahan Tunban’, or baggy trousers and loose, long tunics, which men had to wear by law after the Taliban outlawed western clothes in the 1990s.  However, instead of fearfully changing clothes, the two émigré sophisticates mocked the clothing first – could they both fit into one pair of trousers, for instance?!  The shoes also became a motif throughout, hinting to the various players that all was not as it seemed. Suggested by looks alone, Sordoba was surprised that her husband, Arsalan of Kabul, should suddenly have such good taste in footwear, and Arsalan of Samaqand wondered why his servant would have swapped his trainers for a pair of battered old sandals. (You notice feet when you’re a Groundling).

Thus, mostly, this production was a hoot, in true Carry On style.  Sordoba (Adrianna) pursued the bemused Arsalan of Samaqand with great energy: a younger and slimmer Hattie Jacques, she rubbed her calf up and down his leg whilst he tried to extricate himself.  He was not quite Kenneth Williams, however, as he himself lustily pursued the prudish but ultimately willing Rodaba (Luciana).

Meanwhile, the real Arsalan of Kabul could bluster and rage as much as he liked, but he could not gain entry to his own house, the doors barred and bolted against him.

I say Carry On, but as the director was French, perhaps the flavour was equally that of Gallic farce.  Several productions in this festival involved intercultural exchanges in the creative processes as well as in the audience reception of the shows.

Image of the Courtesan temporarily removed.
 

The highlight for some young Afghans behind me was clearly the appearance of the Courtesan.  Played by the same actress as Rodoba, she had swapped her shalwar kamiz for tight, tight jeans and a red leather jacket, and shimmied across the stage in her high-heeled boots.  Whatever song she was singing (something about zum-zum-zum), the audience clearly knew it and joined in. As she left to uproarious applause, the young people shouted out ‘zum-zum-zum’ again, willing her to come back.  She looked a little surprised, and then obligued.

Much of the comedy, as I have said, was farce and slapstick.  Luce the kitchen maid was a pantomime dame rather than an original practices boy-player.  Yet there were moments of extraordinary emotion as well.  At the very end, in the chaos of the denouement, as all the identities are revealed and all the confusions are cleared up, one recognition stood out.  The Abbess, who had been giving sanctuary to the Samaqands (it’s a long story – you’ll have to watch the play for yourself!) was standing centre stage in her long white robes.  Eshan faced death, because he was rejected by his Kabul son, who he believed was his Samaqand son, and who didn’t recognise him.  He looked up in despair, then met the Abbess’ eyes.  Slowly, slowly they moved towards each other, reached out their arms to each other, then sat quietly on the floor amidst all the commotion as the audience realised that Eshan had found his wife and she realised that she had found her children, and every one realised that all would be well.

The blurb on the performance flyer announced that it wanted to show daily life as it is in the back streets of Kabul, and if this performance is to be believed, it is not so different from the goings-on in many back streets all over the world – early modern Italy, or post-modern London…

Yet that is only partly true.  Roy-E-Sabs rehearsal premises in Kabul came under attack, the company had to rehearse in India, and on BBC Woman’s Hour, one of the actresses revealed how some in her community saw her as no better than a prostitute.

But to that, Roy-E-Sab say zum-zum-zum…

See more on this context in Stephen Purcell’s review on the Shakespeare’s Globe blog.

(c) Shakespeare’s Globe

Interview with cast members.