Worlds Elsewhere



Andrew Dickson



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For my parents

Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how.

It is a part of an Englishman's constitution.

—Jane Austen,
Mansfield Park

There is a world elsewhere.



The theatre was packed, people jostling for position. As I watched, three men detached themselves from the crowd and began slowly to climb the steps. A ripple of applause washed over them as they came up on to the stage. Acknowledging it, they glanced around – surprised, bemused to find themselves here in the flat grey light of an English summer afternoon. They were decently dressed, if perhaps a little shabby: long
tunics in grey and mud-brown, loose trousers, jackets, rubber sandals. Orange security lanyards flapped at their necks. They carried bags; one had a rug slung across his arm. They looked fresh off the plane, and dusty with tiredness.

They settled themselves down, cross-legged, on one side of the stage. Ceremonially, the rug was laid out. The carry-on bags disgorged a series of unlikely objects: a small drum, a case of wooden flutes, a much larger rug. One of the men unzipped what looked like a violin case and produced an Afghan lute, the colour of fresh honey, bristling with pegs and frets. After a few lazy skitterings up the fingerboard, he glanced towards his colleagues. The crowd hushed. Somewhere nearby, there was a brief splash of birdsong. Quietly, insistently, the musicians began to play.

It was June 2012, and I had come to the Globe theatre in London. The company were called Rah-e-Sabz (‘Path to Hope'), and they were from Afghanistan; they were about to perform a version of
The Comedy of Errors
translated into Dari Persian. The performance was part of a festival of global Shakespeare, scheduled to coincide with the Olympic Games. Performers from Brazil, Iraq, Tunisia, South Africa, Poland, Turkey, China, Spain, Zimbabwe – nearly fifty countries, all told – had been invited to bring productions to Britain. It was the largest jamboree of its kind in history. Cantonese, Armenian, Bengali, Castilian Spanish, Palestinian Arabic: the plays had been translated into a tumult of languages, many of which had barely been heard on British stages and certainly not in dramas by Shakespeare.

The Comedy of Errors
was a brave choice, and not just for a company that had only been in existence a few years and never visited the UK. The text is a notoriously tall order. Two sets of identical twins (two masters, two servants) find themselves separated by a shipwreck. One pair end up in Ephesus (in present-day Turkey) – set up home, settle down. The master marries, the servant gets engaged. Life goes on. Little do they know that their brothers have set off from Syracuse (present-day Sicily) in search of them and have just arrived in town. For the Sicilian twins all hell breaks loose: people they have never met keep recognising them, tradesmen turn up with goods they haven't ordered. Mysterious women sidle up, claiming to share intimate histories. For the Turkish ones, it's nearly as bad: everyone in town suddenly seems to have gone crazy. Not realising they are constantly being mistaken for their twins, all four fear they are bewitched or – worse – going mad.

For most of its history on stage in the west,
The Comedy of Errors
– perhaps one of Shakespeare's first plays, written in the early 1590s – has been dismissed as an apprentice piece, a creaky and mechanistic farce in the mode of the Roman comedian Plautus, on whose work it was based. Even nowadays it is still a rarity, especially compared to more popular comedies such as
A Midsummer Night's Dream
As You Like It.
British and American directors fight shy of its rampant improbabilities, its strenuously Elizabethan wordplay, its corny sight gags (and how does one even go about
two sets of twins?).

But as I watched Rah-e-Sabz perform with their three musicians, notionally setting the play in contemporary Kabul, I saw something quite new. The word ‘comedy' was in the title, but it had escaped me how rueful
The Comedy of Errors
was; how much it dwelt on exile, separation. I'd forgotten altogether the character of Egeon, father to two of the twins, who prior to the action has been searching the world for five years, frantic to find his absent sons. He, too, arrives in Ephesus/Kabul and is brusquely arrested for being an illegal immigrant, then placed on death row (here by a female officer in the uniform of the corrupt, western-backed Afghan national police force).

There was farce aplenty, a joyous amount of yelling and chasing around with brooms, but much else seemed fraught. The visiting twins, Antipholus (renamed Arsalan) and Dromio (Bostan), were given an extended Laurel-and-Hardy sequence in which they were required to swap clothes – something that produced hoots in the audience but also had the sinister implication that it was too dangerous to stay as they were. Arsalan was played by the actor Abdul Haq as a lugubrious, haunted-looking character, in flight from something grim in his past. I had to consult the copy of the script on my knee to remind myself what he was saying during a soliloquy in act one, but what I read made me catch my breath:

He that commends me to mine own content

Commends me to the thing I cannot get.

I to the world am like a drop of water

That in the ocean seeks another drop,

Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,

Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.

So I, to find a mother and a brother,

In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.

There was laughter as he spoke the lines, but a soft murmur went around a group of Persian-speaking women standing in the yard in front of me; recognition, perhaps.

Rah-e-Sabz's space at the British Council in Kabul had been destroyed in a suicide-bomb attack the previous year; they'd had to rehearse in Bangalore. The actor playing Egeon's wife, Parwin Mushtahel, now lived in Canada, forced into exile after her husband was murdered because she dared perform in public. Nobody here needed reminding what it felt like to lose yourself, thousands of miles away from the people you loved.

The company's work had been held up as a brave example of how theatre could fight back against religious fundamentalism: it was that, certainly. It was also an example of how Shakespeare's plays could take root in places geographically and ideologically remote from those of sixteenth-century England (though, one could argue, not
remote: the Taliban had plenty in common with the Puritans who detested Elizabethan theatre).

But as we worked towards the conclusion of
The Comedy of Errors,
as father and mother and brothers, separated for so long, hugged each other disbelievingly, it occurred to me that there was something else, too. This story of journeys, mistakes, confusions, misplaced identities – being in a strange land, trying to know and comprehend its culture, finding both less and more than you ever imagined – asked a question so often asked in Shakespeare's plays. What does it really feel like to travel?

In Britain, no one really seemed sure what to make of the World Shakespeare Festival. After a brief show of interest, many newspapers tired of the novelty of companies from far-flung countries bringing versions of Shakespeare in languages few journalists could understand. Critics trooped out en masse to see the home-grown highlights – a production of
Timon of Athens
at the National Theatre (an almost unheard-of rarity); the Royal Shakespeare Company's ostensibly ‘African'
Julius Caesar
(in fact cast entirely in Britain, with actors from a variety of heritages). News correspondents made sure to be there at the Globe for
The Merchant of Venice
by the Israeli company Habima, briefly interrupted by pro-Palestinian protests. Yet although audiences attended in their thousands, some of the other shows that came –
The Merry Wives of Windsor
in Swahili,
The Winter's Tale
in Yoruba – had barely any reviewers at all.

No doubt logistics were partly responsible: so much else was going on that summer that it was hard to know where to look. But I thought I detected something revealing in the world-weary shrug that greeted much of the World Shakespeare Festival: a very British reluctance to acknowledge that Shakespeare really belongs to anyone else.

It is almost a joke that the British have made our National Poet an integral part of our national identity. More than once, we have voted him one of our Greatest Britons. He is resident deity at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare's Globe, and patron saint of the Royal National Theatre, where a plaque with his name graces the foundation stone of the building. His works have been compulsory on the British National Curriculum since its foundation in the 1980s, and a major part of British education for at least 150 years. In pubs called things like the Shakespeare's Head and the Shakespeare, we toast him with pints of lukewarm Flowers bitter (logo: the poet's head), named after the Stratford brewing dynasty that helped build the RSC's predecessor, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. (Alas for Little Englanders, Flowers is now owned by the Belgian-Brazilian multinational Anheuser-Busch InBev.)

Shakespeare is a brand as recognisably British as the London Routemaster bus or Queen Elizabeth II's head. Until recently he acted as our financial guarantor: up to 1993, an image of Peter Scheemakers' statue of the poet in Westminster Abbey graced the £20 note, and for many years British cheque-guarantee cards were marked with a hologram of Shakespeare's face. In late 2015, the Home Office revealed designs for a new UK passport. The star, naturally, was William Shakespeare, watermarked on every single page.

Patriotism turns, on occasion, to jingoism. We become defensive when theatre companies from abroad bring their own Shakespeares to these shores. (‘We have quite enough gimmicky Shakespeare of our own,' huffed the
's critic of a Brazilian
Richard III.
‘Do we really need to import it?') Numerous Conservative politicians have cited as their favourite lines in literature the St Crispin's Day speech in
Henry V,
which precedes the glorious trampling of the French at the Battle of Agincourt. Guests on one of the BBC's most-loved interview programmes,
Desert Island Discs,
are – once they have selected the eight pieces of music that would accompany them to a deserted and exotic location – informed that they will also be issued with the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible by default, for all the world as if they were nineteenth-century missionaries. Simply to get into the BBC studio, they have to pass beneath Eric Gill's sculpture of Prospero and Ariel, which stands on the facade of Broadcasting House in central London.

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