LONDON (Reuters) - A bearded man in drag and the Afghan army make unlikely companions in an adapted Shakespeare comedy whose London staging has shone a spotlight on Afghanistan's neglected arts scene.
Thirty years of war and conflict have severely hampered Afghanistan's cultural development. Afghans boast a rich musical legacy and tradition of poetry, but many of the most talented go abroad, fleeing a film industry on the brink of collapse and a theatre industry that was throttled at birth.
"This is a starter, the beginning of what could be a revolution to change Afghanistan through art," said actor Basir Haider, who plays a servant in William Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors", a farcical play of mistaken identity.
The May 31 production in their native Dari Persian is part of Globe to Globe, which comes to a close at the end of this week and showcases 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 languages at the Globe Theatre as part of an Olympic cultural festival.
"Placing Afghan theatre next to the best in the world will hopefully allow more Afghans to tell their stories," Shreela Ghosh, director of arts for wider South Asia at the British Council, which brought the troupe to London, told Reuters.
Staging the play was a massive undertaking for small theatre company Roy-e-Sabs (Path of Hope), run by Syrian-German director Corinne Jaber.
Jaber said it was extremely difficult to find professional actresses in ultra-conservative Afghanistan and obtain rehearsal space free from the watchful eye of the pervasive and disapproving Taliban insurgents.
The actors rehearsed in India after their space at the British Council in central Kabul was obliterated by a band of suicide bombers last year.
The austere rule of the Islamist Taliban banned theatre outright in Afghanistan and though they were toppled a decade ago, performers today, especially women, complain of threats from the group and pressure from relatives who deem acting un-Islamic and too Western-leaning.
Preparations for the play coincided with the release of the book "Shakespeare in Kabul", which details the harrowing obstacles of putting on the 2005 production of "Love's Labour's Lost" in Kabul.
That was the first Shakespeare play to be staged in the capital in 30 years, say the book's American and Afghan authors, Stephen Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar, who credit low levels of violence and optimism at the time for the production's success.
"Afghan actors have talent and we have very good writers too," said Omar, who helped work on the translation of "The Comedy of Errors" at the Globe.
Like other people concerned with reviving Afghanistan's cultural fortunes, Omar lamented the meager support that culture has received from the tens of billions of dollars NATO has poured into Afghanistan since the U.S.-led war began just over a decade ago.
"Shakespeare is great, but help us create an Afghan Shakespeare."
In Jaber's adaptation of Comedy of Errors for Afghans, the Syracusan family is split up in a sandstorm. In the original they are hit by a tempest while on a sea voyage.
The "risque" love scenes - while totally typical of Shakespeare - were met with caution and even disapproval by some, a grim reminder of the struggles Afghan women routinely face in a society where they have far fewer rights than men.
"I am afraid life might be difficult for the women afterwards," said veteran Afghan actress Parwin Mushtahel, one of three women in the play.
She warned that the actresses could face trouble from relatives if photos or films of the play make it to Afghanistan.
"Our people simply cannot accept women on the stage, not to mention women who are kissing men," said Mushtahel.
She fled to Canada some years ago after receiving death threats for appearing in the 2005 Love's Labour's Lost production in Kabul and her husband was murdered. She suspects the killer may have been motivated by her acting.
Editing by Paul Casciato