Corinne Jaber's association with India goes back to Peter Brook's magnum stage production of the Mahabharata. Her latest trip to the subcontinent is with her theatre group Rah-e-sabz, which is based in Kabul. The group's new production of Shakespeare's THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (KOMEDY-E-ESHTEBAHAT) is among the 37 international productions, which have been commissioned to be staged at the Globe to Globe festival, Shakespeare World Festival in London this year. Jaber's work with Afghan women in theatre has won her a lot of goodwill. KOMEDY-E-ESHTEBAHAT in Dari Persian with English surtitles will be performed at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai on 19th May 2012.
The Globe has tried, in several cases, to link the plays commissioned for a country with their prevailing political situation. Afghanistan seems rife for a political play, as the cliche goes. But you chose a comedy...
It wasn't exactly like that. The Afghans don't like tragedy, or stories about war, or anything dark and depressing. The Globe had suggested some other plays that were rather heavy, and I felt that they would not have gone down too well with the Afghans. I can say this after having worked with them over several years. I don't live there, but I return to Kabul at least a couple of times each year, so I am aware of the sensibility that we have developed over time with my theatre group Roy-e-Sabz. Which is why we specifically requested a comedy.
Could you tell us a little about the adaptation process? What were the things you were looking to change, what did you want to retain?
Well, we had Nahal Tajajod, a wonderful translator on board, but the idea was to retain as much of the Shakepearean narrative, and stay very close to it. We have used contemporary Persian, the way it is spoken in Kabul today, but the colloquial richness of the original text, and the poetry is still very much there. We have relocated the play to Kabul, and the sea-storm is a sand-storm now. The expat brother has travelled to Kabul from Summerkand. I had watched a version in England, where the brother came from Nigeria. In a way, all of this is essentially very Shakespearean-this relocation, this adapatbility. After all, Shakespeare had never been to Greece where the play was orginally set. It is a short play, so really, we've only incorporated a couple of cuts.
Were you able to bring in real issues? Do we see echoes of the strife in Afghanistan?
Well, in many ways, some issues are already a part of the text. A father comes looking for his son in the play, which is a theme that seems to be borrowed from real life. We've had twenty five years of strife in the country, and people are constantly coming back to look for their lost ones. In fact, in our play, there is a very comic scene in which one of the twins, who is an expat, returns to Kabul and tries on a traditional outfit. He has no idea how to wear it, because he hasn't ever lived in Kabul, which is the tragedy of displacement, that you're sometimes so alienated from your roots.
Several of the plays that have already performed at the Globe this year have catered to a perceived language barrier. Subtlety has given way to broader gestural comedy.
Well, I am aware of that. But our production is 100% Afghani. It is not a slapstick comedy. We hold on to the spirit of the play without low tricks, without underestimating our audience's capacity to absorb something, even if it is an unfamiliar tongue.
With the twins, since the actors are not really identical, did you leave a lot to the audience' suspension of disbelief?
Well, they look alike type-wise. The brothers, especially. They have the same hair-cut, the same beard. Different shoes at first, one wears local gear, the other wears western shoes. But when the expat brother wears the traditional outfit for the first time, they are spitting images of one another. In many ways, you expect that theatre will not be completely literal. So there is some suspension of disbelief but audiences are tuned into that.
You have worked very closely with Afghan women. Do you try and weave in progressive ideas into your work?
No, that does not interest me. The emancipation of women is not part of my job profile. I'm here to create theatre and reflect what is around us in a way palatable to the people who come and watch us. However, when we do theatre, it is possible that such themes do creep in inadvertently. Then we have to respond to them and move on. In THE COMEDY OF ERRORS, we have a scene in which the woman embraces a man. This would have been completely unheard of a few years ago. It's a big issue, and controversial. But with our work, we have now reached a place where people are more relaxed about it. It has take a long time and a lot of coaching to bring us to this point, so theatre does change things in its own subtle way. But that's not necessarily part of the agenda I start out with.
Did you ever feel endangered because of the work you are doing?
I must categorically state that never have I been personally threatened and endangered. Some people have been unfriendly and there are huge difficulties associated with doing theatre in Afghanistan, and there is conflict, but it's something we have groped with some success. Yes, there are a dangers that everyone lives with. We narrowly escaped one such calamity-the British Council in Kabul where we were slated to perform was bombed. It had nothing to do with us, but had we been there, then I wouldn't be talking to you at this moment.
Tell us about your experience in Nrityagram? Why did you decide to rehearse in India?
My association with India, which is like an ongoing love story, goes back more than twenty years. I worked with Peter Brook, as part of his epic production of the Mahabharata, in which I played Amba. I've always been fascinated by the gurukul system, and I thought it would be wonderful for the cast to experience that for themselves. Nrityagram is such a paradise, and it's a treat to take the actors away from everything so that they can focus just on the play and not get bogged down, like in Kabul. It is very unpleasant to rehearse in Kabul, especially with the actors being called away on personal work all the time. So it was nice to get them out of the country. I'm grateful to the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) for this oppurtunity, and we have tried to give something back by sharing the work in India. The response in Bangalore has been tremendous and positive.