There haven’t been many times in life when I’ve wished to exchange places with the ten-headed Ravan: watching Komedy-e-Eshtebahat at Ranga Shankara brought me close to it. An Afghan adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy Of Errors, the play in Dari Persian (a dialect of Persian spoken in Afghanistan) was supplemented with English subtitles displayed at either end of the RS stage. All the hurdles associated with subtitling plays came to the fore this show. With fast-paced action, multiple characters and a deluge of dialogue, it was next to impossible for a single pair of eyes to catch the subtitles and the performance at the same time. Matters were compounded by the nature of the subtitles. Shakespeare can be hard enough to follow in book form at personalised pace. How many lay-viewers can read and absorb such lines flashing on screen in a couple of seconds while the play is on?
Komedy-e-Eshtebahat works with the assumption that the audience is well-versed with the plot of The Comedy Of Errors. Given that this play is gearing up to perform at the Globe to Globe festival in London where all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays will be staged in 37 languages, that is a reasonable assumption to make for their eventual target audience. Not so for the interim Bangalore audience – if someone had walked in to this show knowing nothing of Shakespeare’s original, she’d have had a hard time getting tuned in. The play dives straight into the action without overview or background. In a story that hinges on two sets of identical twins, when the actors playing the twins are not identical and some actors fill in multiple roles, the section of the audience that’s not in the know is bound to feel disoriented. A pamphlet about the play and simplified subtitles overhead behind the actors instead of on the sides would have made the play a lot more accessible.
You can’t go much wrong with the script of The Comedy Of Errors (so what if critics call it an apprentice work of the Bard), but I was a bit disappointed that they chose to focus on the slapstick elements of comedy over the situational. In a farce centred on mistaken identities, the biggest laughs ironically came from men peeking into each others’ pyjamas, a woman chasing someone with a broomstick, a man overplaying the role of a coquettish maid and people slapping each other in Priyadarshan-film style. That apart, the adaptation of context was smoothly done: shipwreck was transposed to sandstorm, 16th century Ephesus to modern-day Kabul, Antipholus to Arsalan.
What’s most commendable is that this brave troupe Rah-e-Sabz is staging the play at all, given the hardships they had to go through to reach where they are. Read about the uneasy path to the Afghan production and their problems of finding actors, especially women. The cast looked like they were having a lot of fun on stage (props to the actor who played the father – he had a most infectious cackling laughter).
I had a silent game of Spot the Hindi Word going on and soon lost count of the matches – darwaza, khidmadgar, varna, zanjeer, zindagi…so much overlap in languages, I am now embarrassed to think I struggled with the dialogues .
If there was one thing during the show that kept me firmly on home territory, it was the music – right from the opening strains of Ghar Aya Meri Pardesi to Naam Abdul Hai, even an interlude sung in Hindi. [Question: Are these originally scores from Afghani music or do Hindi film songs happen to be popular in Afghanistan?] Also entertaining was the rapport between the musicians and the actors. Komedy-e-Eshtebahat gently flouts the conventional separation between the foreground folks (the actors) and the background folks (the music-makers), with Rodaba making eyes at the zerbaghali-player and he responding in equal measure, and near the end, the flutist joining the actors, his instrument of music now a policeman’s tool.
It is hard to talk dispassionately of the merits or otherwise of a play when you know what it has taken to make it – the troupe has faced threats and street attacks, an actress’s husband has been murdered. To go against the norm and stand by one’s beliefs at the risk of personal danger is an extraordinary feat. I offer Rah-e-Sabz (which aptly means Path Of Hope) my admiration and best wishes.