Occasionally fighting to be heard over the clatter of helicopters flying into the nearby NATO headquarters, British actor Naeem Hayat delivers Hamlet’s reflections on mortality and retribution to a shivering audience in Kabul.
He is part of a production of William Shakespeare’s most famous play by Britain’s Globe Theatre company which has already travelled to countries ranging from Rwanda to Antigua or Lithuania as part of a two year-long tour intended to visit every country in the world.
But even with such exotic locations behind it, British ambassador Dominic Jermey said the improvised stage on the tennis court of the British embassy in Kabul on Sunday night was “one of the more unusual locations for performing Hamlet”.
The story of the melancholy Danish prince and his doubting quest to avenge a murdered father is not without relevance to a country that has known more than its fair share of assassination and betrayal over 30 years of war. Its 400 year-old iambic pentameter verse, not to mention the particular stage conventions of Shakespearean drama, can make it a challenge for audiences, even in English-speaking countries.
But Abdul Qadir Farookh, a well-known Afghan actor who featured in the 2007 Hollywood film of Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling novel “The Kite Runner”, said the poet’s heritage extended well beyond Britain. “Shakespeare was no ordinary person,” he said.
Although Afghan audiences have had little contact with Western theatre over decades of war and austere Taliban rule, the Bard, a reliable staple of British cultural diplomacy over the years, has a limited but respectable record in the country.
Farookh himself played “Othello” in an Afghan television production before the Taliban era and a Dari-language version of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” was performed in the bomb-damaged surrounds of the 16th century Babur Gardens in Kabul in 2005. More recently, a troupe of Afghan actors took a Dari “Comedy of Errors” to the Globe Theatre in 2012.
“When I was very young, I studied Shakespeare in Afghan theatre,” Farookh said. “He has a huge heritage and I am proud to say that I have played Shakespeare’s Othello.”
Sunday’s performance of Hamlet, close to the site of a rocket attack the previous night, was preceded by instructions about what to do in the event of a security emergency.
But a mixed audience made up of diplomats and other members of Kabul’s much-reduced international community as well as Afghan dignitaries and students gave it an appreciative welcome on a chilly spring night.
“This is really something new for us,” said theatre student Masood Hunardost. “I have been waiting for such a day to see foreigners performing a Shakespeare drama in Afghanistan.”