The Comedy of Errors is somewhat unusual in the canon: a robust, vibrant, often farcical story of two identical twins (both called Antipholous and their identical twin servants both called Dromio), who are separated early on in their life by a shipwreck.
The ensuing story of mistaken identities does stretch credibility (as Coleridge once remarked); but it remains the plot mainspring for this giddy tale of bourgeois merchants and the modernity of trading cities, dislocated families and confused identities.
This engaging and enormously enthusiastic Afghan version in Dari (Afghan Persian) is reset in contemporary Kabul with the visiting twins from Samarkand, Uzbekistan (the merchants become Arsalan and the two servant Bostan), and recognises that the play’s pleasure lies in its farcical momentum sans restraint. The shipwreck of the original becomes a sandstorm here, but in most ways this resetting is faithful to the plot. The gags and slapstick come thick and fast: men peek into each other’s trousers while changing costumes, a woman chases another character with a broomstick, people slap and hit each other like they did in early days of Hollywood film comedy, and Bostan of Samarakand (Dromio of Syracuse) at one point hides form the amorous serving woman Kukeb (Luce) – who has mistaken him for his twin who is her husband – by pretending to be one of the on stage Afghan musicians. The actors clearly love every moment of being at the Globe and audience interaction is racked up several notches, even by the Globe’s standards.
Afghan theatre has had a precarious history (the Taliban shut it down much like the Puritans did in England after the Civil War and also killed or exiled many famous theatre workers); perhaps in consequence this is a very physical and joyful production, as if trying to make up for those lost years: men and women perform on the stage together (the women not covering their hair); men act getting drunk and fall around; men play women; and Kabul becomes a city of pleasure and uncanny confusions, sumptuous bazaars for trade, and finally of potentiality and family reunions. That the company had to rehearse in Delhi, India, because of very real threats to their safety from the Taliban says something about the passion of the cast. As one actor said to me afterwards: ‘We are doing this for Afghanistan and our people’.
There is fine comic acting and physical clowning throughout the production: the performances are always extremely likeable and often rather inventive. Shah Mammon Masqsudi plays Ehsan (Egeon) but also makes for the funniest maid, Kukeb (Luce) that I have seen in a production of this play to date. His coquettish Kukeb is high camp but with full beard, as keenly amorous as she is portly. Shakoor Shamshad’s Arsalan of Kabul (Antipholus of Ephesus) is suitably confused, angry and puzzled by everything that is happening to him, while Abdul Haq as Arsalan of Samarakand ( Antipholus of Syracuse) is magnificently bewildered, but quickly makes the most of his predicament in what he believes an enchanted city, when he finds himself being offered food, gifts and a little more from people who think they know him. Shah Mohammad as Bostan of Samarakand (Dromio of Syracuse) is as funny and long-suffering as his counterpart twin servant in the form of Basir Haider’s Bostan of Kabul (Dromio of Epesus). Of the two principal women parts the ones both Abida Frotan who plays Sodaba (Adriana) and Farzana Soltani who plays Rodaba (Luciana) and Shabana (the Courtesan) revel in the opportunities for comedy and amazement offered, though it is Soltani’s courtesan who almost steals the show in a brief scene as a sophisticated Afghan lady of the night.
Not often can one see a Shakespeare comedy where the actors are demonstrably brave, as well as extremely funny.