Selam Habibi (Volksbühne Basel) @ Basel, Switzerland, 2013Adaptation

  • Markus Marti

Review by Markus Marti

Markus R&J

Selam Habibi, as one might not immediately recognize, is the ‘German’ title of one of the most popular plays by Shakespeare. It is, according to the production’s subtitle Die ganz vorzügliche und höchst beklagenswerte Geschichte von Romeo und Julia (The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet), and it gets performed in German by a group that has given itself the prestigious name “Volksbühne Basel”. “Volksbühne” alludes to “Volksbühne Berlin”, a theatrical institution that had been made possible by contributions of the German working class towards the end of the 19th century; the Berlin Volksbühne, despite (or because of) its working class and left wing background, had immediately become a first-class address for contemporary productions of older and contemporary plays due to its first directors, Max Reinhard and Erwin Piscator.

The director of the Basel production is Anina Jendreyko. She works with a group of people who are not all professional actors – only a very small part of them are – and they are clearly not all ‘German’ or ‘Swiss’. They are of Kurdish, Moroccan, Turkish, Polish, Persian, Albanian, Bosnian, Cameroonian, Palestinian, Armenian, Swiss and German origin. Some of them come as guest actors from Berlin (Neukölln), but most of them are from ‘Kleinbasel’. Kleinbasel, like Neukölln in Berlin, is a Basel city quarter in which a lot of immigrants from all parts of the world have settled down. Especially the younger actors and actresses have grown up and are still living in this multicultural urban quarter that offers a lot of entertainment and small old flats for relatively cheap rents. The play gets performed in the backroom of a typical old quarter pub, the “Altes Warteck”, that will be pulled down in a year (together with a whole lot of other old pubs and tenements in that particular part of the quarter) to make space for a skyscraper into whose more luxurious flats more well-to-do expats will move, as the builders and the city authorities hope.

Young ‘foreign’ people playing for other, mostly equally ‘foreign’ people of their own quarter: That is lay theatre, one might sneer. But this is not quite the case.

The German text (in Schlegel’s translation) is rendered in a way we can no longer savour in a more distinguished and established German theatre, where actors adapt Schlegel’s ‘classic’ (romantic) language to our own time and to a more modern taste (to their own). There are professionals in this motley crew of the ‘Volksbühne’ who have obviously influenced the acting of the younger and less experienced actors. There is one exception: If a character gets really angry on stage – and they all get angry at one point or another – he or she will start to shout in his or her native tongue, content-wise incomprehensible to the audience and to the fellow actors, but psychologically absolutely understandable according to the situation; contrary to the more distinguished theatres’ productions, the flow of Schlegel’s language does not get affected by this, but the dramatic moments get more stressed.

The idea of the whole production is not at all to ‘integrate’ these ‘foreign’ actors into our society, says the director. They all consider themselves as being integrated anyway, most of them are what we call ‘secondos’, children of foreign immigrants, who might or might not have a Swiss citizenship (usually the have not). The idea of the production is not to ‘integrate’ them but to give them an opportunity to do what they most like, to act. Who gets ‘integrated’ is first of all the audience that gets accommodated around the tables of a typical backroom (“Säli”) of a typical old pub. We get immediately ‘integrated’ into an oriental party with Kurdish music, everybody dances, and when the elder guests get tired and retire to their drinks and meal, the youngsters perform some break-dancing. We are at the party of the Capulets (whose name is not mentioned, they are just “Julia’s parents”). Julia’s parents welcome everybody, they serve fine oriental food, and the newly arrived guests (the audience) who have not brought along their drinks from the pub’s bar, get some fresh water.

Julia’s father is a typical Kurdish self-made-man, he is proud of his success in a foreign country and proud to be able to be so bounteous. It is on this family party that the 17 year old daughter (Zeynep Yaşar) meets Romeo (Yasin El Harrouk), one of these young break-dancers, while the older people enjoy their meal.

After the break-dancing nd after the break, the tables have gone. We have a more conventional theatre-like seating arrangement for the wedding scene and the bed scene. Julia’s father is not pleased, when Julia does not accept the husband he has arranged for her. Julia gets problems with both her parents, her father sends her away, her mother does not defend her at all. Julia’s nurse Teyze (Vera von Behr) and ‘father’ Lorenzo (Farhad Payar) cannot help her. What is she to do now? Accept the arranged marriage with this stranger Paris – someone she does not love – and thus become a bigamist? Follow her husband Romeo into exile? Go to a nunnery? Maybe even kill herself? She makes a gesture of indecisiveness, and after this gesture there is a blackout and the performance is over – there is no fifth act. We know that this play will end tragically, but in this production, we are almost sure that this young Julia will somehow find a suitable solution for herself. After all, many young ‘secondos’ have to find their own way in Switzerland and many other parts of the Western world, they have to find a solution in this clash of cultures, whether they have to ‘integrate’ or are already ‘integrated’ into our society, they also have to comply somehow with their parents’ culture.

Arranged or forced marriages are still a problem for many ‘secondos’ in Switzerland, Romeo and Juliet is in that context a play that is very topical for them. Selam Habibi can lead to discuss questions related with that problem and to find solutions…

The production was quite successful, after its start in Basel in spring, the company toured Switzerland, had a series of additional performances in Basel in autumn, and is now going on tour in Germany.

Markus Marti

Author: Markus Marti

Markus Marti is a lecturer in English Literature and Culture at the University of Basel. He has edited Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus for the bilingual Englisch-deutsche Studienausgabe der Dramen Shakespeares, and he is now working on a translation of Macbeth for the same edition. He has also published a trilingual edition of Shakespeare's sonnets with his own High German and Wallissertitsch (a Swiss German Dialect) translations. He is reviewing productions of Shakespeare's plays on Swiss stages for the yearbook of the Deutsche Shakespeare Gesellschaft. He is our Associate Editor for Switzerland.