Lost in translation: The Globe's Shakespeare season offers a surprising insight into different cultures


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The Independent Culture

It starts with a whistle. It starts, in fact, with a very sturdy Afghan policewoman pointing fiercely at the crowd. She's at Kabul airport. She's also in Ephesus. She's also on the stage at the Globe. There aren't, it's true, all that many Afghan policewomen in Ephesus. There aren't all that many in Afghanistan either, where they make up less than 1 per cent of the police force.

But you can have a bit of poetic licence when you're doing Shakespeare; when you are, for example, an Afghan theatre company performing The Comedy of Errors. What you can't have, at least if you're performing in Dari, which is the version of Persian that's spoken in Afghanistan, and if you're performing to a British audience that doesn't understand a word of it, and without a translation, is poetry.

You can see why Afghans, and Albanians, and Palestinians, and the citizens of pretty much every country in the world, might want to perform the works of the greatest playwright who ever lived, even though they have to perform them in another language. What's harder to understand is why British audiences would want to see the work of the greatest poet who ever lived without actually hearing the words.

But they do. Boy, they do. More than 100,000 people have been to the Globe in the past six weeks to see all 37 of Shakespeare's plays in different languages, including recently the Israeli Habima Theatre Company's The Merchant of Venice. Some have seen all 37. Some have even stood for all of them. And 80 per cent of them, apparently, have never been to the Globe before.

Graham Sheffield, the artistic director of the British Council, which has supported a number of the productions in the "Globe to Globe" festival, including this one by the Afghan theatre company Roy-e-Sabs, has seen about 15. "It's amazing," he said at the reception before the performance, " how people find resonance for their own society, and in their own language, for the messages of Shakespeare, whether it's about human rights, politics, love or war. Sometimes," he said, "when British companies monkey around with Shakespeare, and update it, it can feel a little forced, but actually a lot of these productions seemed very natural."

You'd expect a director of the British Council to talk about "cross-cultural boundaries" and the British Council's "mission". You'd expect him to say that putting on Shakespeare in other languages was an excellent use of British taxes. You'd probably expect Rory Stewart, the Tory MP whose TV series on Afghanistan finished the night before the play, to say something similar. "I think it's enormously important for Afghanistan," he told me, "because it's often seen as a victim, simply a charity case. It is," he said, "a country with an enormous amount of energy, and a huge cultural tradition. I feel the whole act of staging Shakespeare in Afghanistan, and here, is a way of turning the whole thing around and saying Afghanistan is one of the most important sources of our civilisation."

All of which seems a little bit worthy. It sounds as though Shakespeare is good for you, and good for struggling countries, and good for countries that are, because of your leaders, at war. And when three men in brown salwar kameez ambled onto the stage with musical instrument cases and rolled up carpets, and started muttering words that nobody seemed to want to translate, my heart didn't exactly sing. When they unfurled their carpets, and got out their instruments, and started playing, and people in the pit started to move to the music, I thought it was going to be like the kind of community arts event that's funded by the local council.

But when the Afghan policewoman walked on to the stage, and blew her whistle, and a man in a raincoat started shrieking and waving his arms around, I thought it was going to be less like a community arts event, and more like a panto.

It carried on feeling like a panto when two men in jeans wandered through the audience and onto the stage, and were encouraged by a man who seemed to be a shopkeeper to try on local Afghan clothes. The men, who were called Arsalan and Boston instead of Antipholus and Dromio, and who had just arrived in what one of the surtitles had told us was Kabul, each stuck a leg in a pair of giant salwar kameez. It was as near as you could get to a pantomime horse.

It was also very funny. It was funny when they put their own pairs on, and struggled with how to keep them up, and struggled in a way that seemed both innocent and rude. And it was funny when a man with a beard, in a dress, with giant false breasts, sidled on to the stage, and when the surtitles said he was a kitchen maid, and when the woman he or she was working for chased Arsalan with a broom.

But when it became clear that everyone was confused – and that the woman with the broom thought Arsalan was her husband, and he decided to pretend he was and spend the night with her anyway – it started to feel like something that wasn't just funny, charming, and interesting because it was being presented in a way that gave you insight into another culture. It began to feel like something that was showing you something important about knowing, or not knowing, who people really are.

When the real husband and his servant turned up, and weren't allowed in because the pretend husband and servant were already there, it felt like something that showed you what it was like to feel that you were doing your very best to be understood but were finding only brick walls and crossed wires. It began to feel like something that showed you that quite a lot of life was a muddle, but that in that muddle you could still sing, cry, laugh and love.

And when, at the end, all the characters met each other, and everyone was confused and surprised, and the Emir tried, as the subtitle said, "to untangle the situation", and when, most of all, the Abbess (who was also the police officer) recognised the husband she thought had died many years before, it felt, and seemed to feel to every single person in the theatre, like a moment of pure joy.

When you see a Shakespeare play in a language you don't understand, you do lose the pleasure of the language, but where you lose you can also gain. It is, as Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe's artistic director told me after the performance, "like X-raying the play". You see, as he said, "the characters, and the relationships, so you get a very, very sharp look at the substructure of the play without seeing the flesh, and you can concentrate on the gestures and the faces".

Last summer, the British Council's offices in Kabul, where Roy-e-Sabbs were rehearsing their The Comedy of Errors, were wrecked by a bomb. Fourteen people were killed, but the play was still performed. "Were we," as Adriana, or rather Shakespeare, says in it, "burdened with like weight of pain/As much, or more, we should ourselves complain."

What we probably wouldn't be doing is giving other countries lessons in joy.