Globe to Globe Blog: Jo Caird on The Taming of the Shrew & The Comedy of ErrorsDate: 4 June 2012
Hasnat, Ghazi and Qazim all wish to marry beautiful Bina. Her father, however, has decided that a husband must be found for Kiran, Bina's elder sister, before he will even discuss his youngest's prospects. But who would want to marry short-tempered, independent-minded Kiran? Bina's suitors are in despair.
Transposing Shakespeare's most baldly misogynist plot to modern day Pakistan – a society where arranged marriages are still the norm and violence against women is a major social problem – gave The Taming of the Shrew a dramatic weight that would be difficult to attain in another context. The cast played every moment of comedy to (and sometimes, alas, beyond) its full potential, making for an enjoyable and accessible evening of theatre, but it was Nadia Jamil's witty and knowing performance in the title role that gave this production its edge.
Strong supporting performances by Omair Rana as Rustam, Karen David as Bina, Umer Naru as her successful suitor, Qazim, and Ahmed Ali as Qazim's servant, Mir, gave Theatre Walley's production a solid narrative centre that was marred only by director Haissam Hussain's tendency to go for lowest common denominator laughs.
The addition of a narrator, who introduced the piece and flitted around pulling focus from the protagonists in every scene, was a puzzling choice. Casting a cross-dressing male actor as Ghazi's middle-aged bride at the end of the play was similarly perplexing. But other innovations – such as having characters occassionally break into Lollywood-style song or dance routines – added a splash of local colour that firmly grounded the production in its new context.
A modern setting worked well for The Comedy of Errors too, which was staged in Dari Persian by Roy-e-Sabs, a Kabul-based theatre company performing outside of Afghanistan for the first time.
The plot centres around a case of double mistaken identity, in which a pair of identical twins separated at birth end up in same city unbeknownst to each other, causing all manner of confusion. The story is no less implausible in modern day Kabul than in any other context, but the master/servant relationships that are so central to the piece, as well as its sexual politics, fit this world perfectly.
Knockabout comedy, unsurprisingly, was the order of the day, with plenty of physical business breaking up the text. Abdul Haq as Arsalan of Samarkand, with Shah Mohammad as his faithful servant Bostan, made a brilliant double act – the extended scene in the marketplace where they are given new clothes in order to pass as residents of Kabul was particularly well judged.
Director Corinne Jaber would have done well to rein in the overexuberant performances of some of her cast, however. Shah Mamnoon Maqsudi, doubling as Ehsan, father to the separated twins, and the naughty kitchen maid Kukeb, was a delight to watch, but stole every scene with his clowning, undermining his fellow actors and distracting attention from the plot. Pantomime can be a joy in the right context, but here it felt unsubtle and out of place.
As with The Taming of the Shrew, what set this production apart was the feeling that beneath the comedy, there was a point being made, albeit very gently. As expensive trinkets changed hands and power shifted from one twin to the other, it became clear that Roy-e-Sabs have made The Comedy of Errors into a play about the injustice of wealth and status. While most of the final scenes of comedies in this festival have descended into near hysteria, as character after character makes a shocking confession as to their true identity or motivation, the end of this piece had a satisfying restraint and dignity to it, despite the implausibility of the scenario.
All credit to Jaber then for such an adept adaptation, especially given the challenges of making theatre in what is still a highly repressive regime. Following a 2005 Roy-e-Sabs production of Love's Labour's Lost that included women acting with their heads uncovered and men and women holding hands, two female cast members were forced to leave the country. Auditions for The Comedy of Errors took place in secret and the show was rehearsed in India because of security concerns. That Roy-e-Sabs are managing to make work at all is impressive. That The Comedy of Errors was one of the strongest shows in the Globe to Globe programme is a major achievement.