Year of Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet in BaghdadAdaptationTragedyYear of Shakespeare

  • Christie Carson

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.

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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.