The Comedy of Errors, The Globe, 31 May 2012
This was the production the Taliban had not wanted us to see. Rah-e Sabz or The Path of Hope had been obliged to rehearse in India rather than strife-torn Kabul to escape the threat of violence from militants who would have objected to the simple presence of men and women on stage together, let alone the crossed-dressed maidservant offered in this Dari Persian version of Shakespeare’s early comedy.
The production was set in modern-day Afghanistan, which became apparent when Egeon was arrested in the yard by an Afghan police officer and questioned by the Emir. Egeon had been separated from his wife and children in a sandstorm, which was a clever piece of adaptation.
The out-of-towners were from Samarqand, a city in Uzbekistan. They looked pleased to have arrived in Kabul. Antipholus posed while his Dromio took a photo of him with a groundling. The Kabul merchant gave them local clothes to try on, which led into a comic sequence in which they both stepped into a single pair of outsize trousers and other outlandish garments until the merchant helped them out.
The initial confusion with the Kabul Dromio being mistaken for his Samarqand brother led into a scene where dinner was being set by Luce, played by a man in drag. She laid out a carpet on which was served a large plate of egg risotto, which looked very appetising.
In order to establish the relationship between the Kabul Dromio and Luce, which was later to become a comic nightmare for the Samarqand Dromio, we saw the Kabul Dromio sit and flirt with her, stuffing her mouth with egg. Luce hurried off when Adriana and Luciana entered, allowing Dromio to report that Antipholus would not come to dinner.
Samarqand Antipholus beat his own Dromio when he returned, but paused when the call to prayer sounded. Adriana danced for Antipholus with a seductive wink and wrapped her leg around him, which his Dromio had to unwrap by hand twice. Not surprisingly he went along with the idea of dining with her.
A carpet was held up to serve as the door at which the Kabul Antipholus knocked and failed to enter. He tried to run at the door, but was held back by the Goldsmith who asked him to think of his reputation. He decided to maintain his reputation by going instead to visit the Courtesan.
Samarqand Antipholus held his hands over Luciana’s eyes in a playful attempt at seduction. They ended up on the ground with Antipholus lying almost on top of her. Reluctant Luciana tried to slide out from beneath him.
More fun and games were in store when Luce mistakenly chased Samarqand Dromio around the pillar before catching up with him, taking off his trainer and sucking his toe, her hand reaching up his trouser leg, before chasing him into the yard. Back on stage, he hid among the musicians. Luce passed by searching for him in vain, flirting instead with one of the band. Dromio and Antipholus decided to flee Kabul, but as they left Antipholus was given a gold chain to hang about his neck.
The role of the Merchant was cut so there was no subplot involving the chain of debt between Antipholus, the Goldsmith and the Merchant. The Kabul Antipholus entered drunk and dishevelled from seeing the Courtesan, brandishing a bottle of strong alcohol. He had to put his top clothes back on again.
Antipholus demanded the chain from the Goldsmith, who in turn presented his bill. The Goldsmith paid an ANP officer to arrest the Kabul Antipholus, which in context looked like bribery.
The Officer was a flautist who rose from among the band and “arrested” Antipholus by playing his instrument: each note made the imaginary handcuffs around his wrists tighter. The flautist’s notes controlled Antipholus, moving him into position as a prisoner.
Dromio was given the key to fetch bail money and debated returning to Luce: the interpolated scene showing her pursuit of him had already made us aware of the force of this dilemma. The conversation between Adriana and Luciana was also interrupted by a call to prayer, which served in this production to mark the passage of time instead of the striking of clocks.
The implied stage direction in this scene calls for the striking of one o’clock, which in a Kabul setting was localised with these calls to indicate that the action of the play was taking place within a day.
Samarqand Antipholus entered with clothes draped over his arms as he marvelled at the gifts given to him in the street. Dromio mistakenly brought him the gold, and they were interrupted by the Courtesan.
A vision in tight jeans, long hair and sunglasses, the Courtesan sashayed on stage and asked for her ring back. She danced provocatively, causing them to flee for fear that she was some kind of devil. She vowed to speak to Antipholus’ wife, at which point the interval came.
The second half began with the Kabul Antipholus under arrest. To his dismay, his Dromio returned with a rope and the pair were led away by the police officer.
The entire Doctor Pinch sequence was cut, so we next saw the Samarqand men burst in with sticks and pick a fight with the Goldsmith outside the abbey, represented by the tiring house doors. Adriana, Luciana and the Courtesan caught up with them, causing the terrified pair to run inside.
There followed an interpolated scene of Luce looking for Dromio.
The Abbess emerged and told Adriana that her husband’s madness was caused by her jealousy. Adriana decided to call on the Emir, who turned up with Egeon in tow. Having escaped from the police, the Kabul pair ran in brandishing sticks. Antipholus pleaded with the Emir, who was unable to puzzle out the conflicting stories.
Egeon was very moved to see his son. He grasped Kabul Antipholus’ hand in both his hands and massaged it. But Antipholus disdainfully extracted his hand from the stranger’s grasp as if it had been stuck in a letterbox. The Kabul Dromio did not recognise Egeon either.
The staging of the final reunions was one of the best parts of the production and proved to be an extremely heartrending and emotional version of the scene.
The Abbess appeared with the Samarqand men. There was an immediate flash of recognition when she and Egeon caught sight of each other. Normally theirs is the final reunion, but in this production the elderly couple’s meeting was placed first, making it the touching centre around which all the other reunions revolved.
The estranged couple walked slowly towards each other until they met centre stage. The story of the sandstorm was told and she collapsed at his feet. After this, they sat close together with eyes only for each other.
The two Antipholuses recognised each other, causing Adriana to ask with whom she had dined that afternoon. She was reunited with her husband. The Kabul Antipholus slapped his Samarqand brother for putting the chain round Adriana’s neck as that was his privilege. The money was returned to its rightful owner and the Dromios were also brought together.
All this while, the central couple had been unaware of the joyous reunions taking place around them. They finally stood up and with tears in their eyes recognised their children, with Emilia seeing all four of them for the first time in many years.
The effect of the staging was to stagger the reunions into three separate stages, with the most tearful and poignant reunion of parents with children kept until last, by which time there was not a dry eye in the house.
Once the Emir had worked out the sequence of events, he no longer required Egeon’s ransom to be paid and everyone was invited into the abbey. The Dromios were the last to go. As Luce called out to them from offstage, they compared how fat they were and went in hand in hand.
The audience was also very interesting. A group of Afghan women behind me were shushed when they started talking, but soon a man further back began calling out in a clearly audible voice, providing something approaching a running commentary on events. It quickly became apparent that he was much more engaged with the play than any of the non-Dari speakers.
Immune to stares, he continued to contribute to the ambiance of the performance by helping the rest of us to imagine how this production might be received in its native country.