Year of Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.

 

Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, Iraqi Theatre Company, dir. Monadhil Daood, 30 April 2012 at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

By Susan Bennett, University of Calgary, and Christie Carson, Royal Holloway, University of London

Monadhil Daood’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet for the Iraqi Theatre Company, Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad started literally with a bang.  Several of them, as gunfire and light flashes from explosions set the stage for a show that would relentlessly deliver the quotidian violence—and its very long history—in Iraq’s capital city.  The Capulets and the Montagues are warring families of Sunni and Shia peoples, and Romeo and Juliet star-crossed lovers who must negotiate danger even without the impossibility of their relationship.

These lovers are not struck by newfound affection at the party at the Capulet’s house but are reunited after nine years of separation due to the violent feud between the two families. There are a number of references to ‘the boat’ which these families find themselves in which apparently is both a physical and metaphoric reference to the disagreements between the Sunni and Shia people. There are a great many additions to the text of the play as well as an interesting reassignment of some of the characters and ideas. There was an enormous effort in trying to make the audience feel the experience of living under such disruptive and soul-destroying conditions.

First through the intervention of the “Teacher” (Sami Abdulhameed), the play seems to implore us (the West) to better understand the brutal realities of life in a city so long torn by war and the price it exacts on all its inhabitants.  Benvolio (Ameer Hussein), for example, is played by a young boy proudly sporting his Lionel Messi football shirt and dreaming of another world where skills in heading the soccer ball rather than firing a gun might be rewarded. Mercutio (Fikrat Salim) cries out pitifully after being shot trying to protect Romeo from Tybalt’s drawn weapon ‘I’m not going to die am I? I don’t want to die.’ None of these young men want to be here and none of them can possibly leave.

Romeo & Juliet in Baghdad assaults the senses again and again, to bleak effect: the very things we rely upon to assert a common humanity, to advertise a world where we dare to hope—love, football, food—fall far short in this Baghdad where any laughter or tenderness quickly dissipates into the everyday normal: anger, hatred, and death.

The young lovers find sanctuary in the church as we anticipate but instead of the mistaken deaths in Shakespeare’s play that brings about the tragic end, here Paris (Allawi Hussein) gets to resolve the plot in this drama’s only moment of extreme passion—a suicide bombing that shocks as it underscores the absolute loss of love in this world.  Lives lost by the end of Shakespeare’s tragedies suddenly seem little more than aesthetic convention; the real tragedy, this adaptation suggests, is the West’s passive spectatorship of a story familiar to us from the nightly news.

The audience in attendance was sparse and seemingly predominantly Western and unable to understand the Arabic language. The rapid fire surtitles made following both the action and words hard going. For many of the audience members there was an almost physical recoiling at the onslaught of emotion, noise and language pouring off the stage. It was a significant shift in the usual atmosphere of the beautiful Swan theatre space. The theatre, for this night at least, did not seem a safe haven for anyone involved.

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Please add your thoughts to the discussion thread below!

 

To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

 

Audience reactions:

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Author:Christie Carson

Christie Carson is Reader in Shakespeare in Performance in the English Department at Royal Holloway University of London. She is co-editor of The Cambridge King Lear CD-ROM: Text and Performance Archive, Shakespeare's Globe: A Theatrical Experiment and Shakespeare in Stages: New Theatre Histories all with Cambridge University Press.
  • I also found this production extremely moving – the way in which Romeo and Juliet almost become incidental to the story was startling, and made me rethink what we mean by the term ‘tragedy’.

  • John Weeks

    I was impressed and moved by Monadhil Daood’s adaptation,
    “Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad”. For me it demonstrated the illumination which
    intercultural performance can shed, both into a play and beyond a play.

    It illuminated my perception of the world of Verona which
    Shakespeare creates in his play. As a modern English person I have no direct
    experience of an urban setting devastated all the time by violence, “where
    civil blood makes civil hands unclean”. Shakespeare’s play therefore demands of
    me an act of imagination if I am to grapple with his construct of a Verona
    beset by the feuding of Montague and Capulet, Daood’s adaptation, punctuated by
    sounds of gunfire and explosions which suggest Sunni and Shia feuding, gave me
    a way of imagining Shakespeare’s Verona, a culture that is alien to me.

    It illuminated my perception of the world of Iraq, where Daood’s
    adaptation was first performed. When Fawzia Mohammed, as Lady Montague,
    screamed “We have had enough of all this misery. We just want to live like
    other people”, I was made to think how many Baghdad citizens must share that
    pain and that plea.

    The adaptation celebrates a cultural phenomenon which is
    neither English nor Iraqi, but global. The young Benvolio, played by Ameer
    Hussein, worships the Barcelona footballer, Lionel Messi. When Mercutio
    ridicules his obsession, Benvolio pours out feelings, which, I guess, may be
    shared by many oppressed and poor young men around the world. Benvolio speaks
    of his need to admire something beautiful which lies outside his own
    challenging and dispiriting world, something even that he can dream of
    emulating himself one day.

    The ending of Shakespeare’s play and of Daood’s adaptation
    sees death snatch the lovers from one another and from their families. I
    imagine that apothecaries, who will sell vials of poison, are no more a part of
    modern Iraqi culture than they are of English culture today. But our two
    cultures do share direct experience of bombers whose actions tear families apart
    – albeit that the English experience comes from 7 July 2005 whereas the Iraqi
    experience is continual. That shared experience made the suicidal revenge
    wreaked by the Mujahedeen Paris an even more shocking end to Daood’s
    adaptation.

    This production does suggest one criterion of successful
    intercultural performance – that it throws light simultaneously in different
    directions.

     

    JOHN WEEKS

  • ‘…the real tragedy, this adaptation suggests, is the West’s passive spectatorship…’

    Don’t you sometimes feel that R&J’s real tragedy is the audience’s passive spectatorship?? As indeed with most Shakespearean tragedies? The symmetry makes it a particularly clever adaptation, as R&J is a world favourite but here it finds an especially rare connection between the play and the local culture. Love the idea of Shakespeare making people so uncomfortable. Cool article, perhaps in London they would find more Arabic speakers to come and watch…

  • Anonymous

    I saw this yesterday afternoon and thought it made certain aspects of the life Shakespeare must have known more immediate than any production I’ve seen before, in particular, living in a country divided by religious hatred and fear.  Two branches of the same faith intent on slaughter is surely something he would have instantly identified with.  The most moving moment at the performance I attended came at the point where Capulet finally stood up to the Mujahadeen Paris and ordered him out of the house.  Two women in Islamic dress broke into spontaneous applause.  Much as I was moved by this play it could never speak so directly to me as it so obviously did to them.

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