The Comedy of Errors by Roy-e-Sabs

Thursday 31 May 2012

At the beginning of Roy-e-Sabs’ production of The Comedy of Errors, the Afghan actress Parwin Mushtahel entered the stage alone, dressed as an airport security guard, and peered out into the crowd in silence. It must have been a charged moment for anybody in the audience who had read accounts of Mushtahel’s persecution in her home country for no crime other than her determination to pursue a career in acting. Her appearance as a silent representative of state authority leant a sinister tone to the scene that followed, with its highly-charged description of a torn-apart family and its looming threat of execution.

This retelling of Shakespeare’s play was set in a fictional version of modern-day Kabul, where Afghan expatriate Ehsan (Egeon) has arrived in search of his missing son Arsalan (Antipholus) and servant Bostan (Dromio), only to discover that natives of his homeland, Samarqand, are forbidden entry to Kabul on penalty of death. Arsalan and Bostan of Samarqand arrive in Kabul shortly afterwards, disguise themselves as locals, and as in Shakespeare’s play, are repeatedly mistaken for their twin counterparts, Arsalan and Bostan of Kabul.

The Comedy of Errors took the collision of East and West as its starting point. Shah Mamnoon Maqsudi’s Ehsan was a distinctly westernised expatriate, appearing before Daoud Lodin’s turbaned Emir in a beige suit and overcoat. Upon their first appearances as Arsalan and Bostan of Samarqand, Abdul Haq and Shah Mohammad entered through the yard, wearing checked shirts, trainers and panama hats. They greeted playgoers with friendly ‘helloes’, and used a small camera to take holiday snaps of the groundlings. Whereas Arsalan and Bostan of Kabul (Ghulamnabi Tanha and Basir Haider) tended to enter from the tiring house at the back of the stage, Arsalan and Bostan of Samarqand, representatives of the West, made most of their subsequent entrances from the yard. While Haq’s Arsalan of Samarqand shared his affable bewilderment with the audience throughout the performance, Tanha’s Arsalan of Kabul was aggressive and confrontational. The production choices aligned us, the audience, very much with the western outsiders in this culture. It is perhaps significant that this production has yet to play to audiences in Afghanistan itself.

This production delighted its audience members with a series of sequences of physical clowning. Arsalan and Bostan of Samarqand’s donning of disguises was performed as an extended slapstick mix-up, in which both men were befuddled by traditional Afghan attire.  Shah Mamnoon Maqsudi turned the role of Luce the kitchen maid (here named Kukeb) into a camp, buxom drag act, and the character resurfaced between scenes for sequences of mostly non-verbal foolery – flirting with the musicians, attempting to seduce Bostan of Kabul as he stuffed food into her mouth, chasing Bostan of Samarqand around the yard, and ‘accidentally’ molesting a male groundling. Bostan of Samarqand was very much the Arlecchino of commedia dell’arte, repeatedly leaping into Arsalan’s arms at the sound of Kukeb’s call, and pretending to be one of the musicians in order to escape her. Abida Frotan’s Sodaba (Adriana) performed a song-and-dance routine. The fact that most of these ‘turns’ were greeted with rounds of applause served to emphasise the way in which the script itself is structured as a progression of self-contained comic scenarios. (The Flying Karamazov Brothers production did something similar in 1982 by performing it as a series of circus acts.)

As all of this indicates, the dominant tone of the production was not the edgy topicality suggested by its opening moments, but rather a joyful and exuberant silliness, and a profound sense of optimism. Judging by their frequent expressions of surprise, many of the audience seemed to be encountering the play for the first time. By the end, the crowd’s goodwill was tangible: there was an audible release of emotion as Ehsan recognised his long-lost wife Zan-e Motakef (Mushtahel), followed by a loud round of applause, and each subsequent reunion was met with both applause and cheering. This response did, perhaps, over-extend the final scene, and the constant embraces emptied the Bostans’ final hand-hold of its usual impact. But as the cast returned to the stage for an increasingly enthusiastic set of curtain-calls, I found it hugely moving to be caught up in such a vigorous display of the emotional power of reconciliation. I sincerely hope the production is able to achieve a similar effect in the home country of its actors.

Dr Stephen Purcell
English and Comparative Literature 
University of Warwick