Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, Studio 2 Riverside Studios, 30 June 2012
Director Monadhil Daood of the Iraqi Theatre Company did not undersell his adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.
His programme note promised that:
The soul of our play should have insinuated its way into your understanding by the third scene. We will share a mystical journey as our performance unfolds before your eyes and weaves its way into your mind – provoking your questions and imagining a new destiny for us.
Remarkably, this grandiose claim proved true. The production was much more than a simple appropriation of a Shakespeare play relocated to a different place and time.
The play was infused with a new strain of poetry informed by present-day Iraq’s suffering to show us the gaping wound in the soul of a people. This came across even in the English surtitles that accompanied the Arabic dialogue.
Taking the historical feud between Montague and Capulet and revisioning it as the country’s current troubles, this remarkable piece of theatre created an emotional understanding of what it means to live in Iraq, something that no amount of newspaper or television coverage could ever achieve.
The performance began with a scene of conflict on the streets with gangs and guns. We learnt that Montague (Maimoon Abdalhamaz) and Capulet (Haider Monathir) were brothers who had fallen out over the family business and were now involved in a feud.
The fighting was interrupted by the General (Hussein Salman) who blamed the brawling on their conflict and we got a detailed history of the origins of the conflict and its ramifications. This was an interesting development on the original in which the cause of the feud was not considered important.
At this early stage we also heard from the Teacher (Sami Abdulhameed). He spoke at length about how he was sick of the incessant violence. This new character had an advisory role to Romeo rather like Friar Laurence, but was more of a generalised Voice of Reason. He remarked how the feud had broken out because of a tradition of seeking retribution, but as he went on to point out: “What’s the point of tradition if it just causes violence?”
In perhaps the most disturbing scene in the production, the brothers had a restrained but argumentative stand-off that culminated in them swearing retribution against each other, not in anger but with subdued menacing laughter. The outward jocularity barely disguised their inner contempt.
Romeo (Ahmed Salah Moneka) and Juliet (Sarwa Rasool) had fallen in love nine years previously and had not seen each other since. They were reunited after a party at her house, and realised that their love was as strong as ever. That this was the resumption of a relationship between mature adults meant that we lost the sense of Juliet experiencing the first pangs of love.
But the production also added new angles. In one sequence, Romeo stood in heavy rain, which he relished as symbolic relief from his problems. He then became engaged in a dispute with his father who denounced him for consorting with a Capulet, a novel twist on the original which did not examine this particular father/son relationship.
Mercutio (Fikrat Salim) was a great character whose Queen Mab reverie became an Iraqi-flavoured dream about a lady beetle who married a rat. Far from being his private property, the dream occurred to other people. When he challenged their apparent appropriation of ‘his’ dream, they each responded, in what became a running gag, “Dreams are not the property of your father”.
The production’s Benvolio (Ameer Hussein) hero-worshipped the footballer Lionel Messi and constantly practised ball control techniques. He became thereby a symbol of youthful hope for a better future.
Besides her usual role as Juliet’s carer, the Nurse (Zahar Beden) had a long speech about her ambition to become an extremist. This was not a serious wish: her character had wicked sense of humour and expressed other imaginings, like pretending to fly on a magic carpet accompanied by the impotent lover of Scheherazade.
Imagining this new career allowed her to explore some of the sad realities of present-day Iraq. The advantages of moving from child-care into extremism were that she would be courted by both the UK and US, and would also receive funding and interest from the Iranians.
The character of Paris (Allawi Hussein) was, however, a genuine extremist, a Mujahadeen. Juliet’s father intended to marry her off to him. He was a houseguest and thought nothing of laying down the law to Capulet, suggesting that he take other wives, accusing him of blasphemy when he shied away from the idea.
Juliet managed to escape her family with the aid of the Teacher and her Nurse and married Romeo. But the two feuding brothers turned up at the wedding party, bringing the festivities to an end.
Tybalt picked a fight with Romeo and Mercutio was killed in the crossfire. As he lay dying, the bitter invective of Mercutio’s “plague” speech was replaced by a positive sentiment.
Instead of cursing his fate and both sides in the conflict, this Mercutio wished his friends well and told Messi to keep up with his football practice. This was perfectly in keeping with the overall mood of a production characterised by a revulsion against violence and the enmity that breeds it.
Tybalt (Hasanain Salam) was shot by Romeo in revenge for his friend’s death as the story trod the familiar path of escalation.
But glimmers of hope arose from outbreaks of common sense.
As Paris became more imperious in his demands, Capulet realised that he would be better off without him. Summoning his courage, Capulet gave Paris his marching orders rejecting him, his extremism and his strictures. As his voice reached a climax of volume and outrage, the mostly Arabic audience cheered and whistled Capulet’s bravery, representing as it did their collective desire for all such extremists to be sent packing.
The normally taciturn Lady Montague (Fawzia Mohammed) was given an entire plotline which saw her approach Capulet and remind him that many years ago, before the feud, she used to feed him when he came to the house hungry. Yet again reminding him of better times, she showed him the palm tree that had been planted by his father, which was the same age as him.
Another more surreal invented scene lit by neon tubes saw both families bewail their problems, surrounded by drips and trolleys as if in a hospital.
Romeo took refuge in a Catholic church, but only because no one would think of looking for him there. The Priest (Hussein Salman again), now a direct echo of the original’s Friar, advised him to stay somewhere else as the location was too dangerous.
Juliet arrived to find Romeo had gone. The peril the Priest had spoke of became stark reality when an explosion knocked Juliet to the ground unconscious.
Romeo found Juliet once again and she revived. The couple vowed to love each other and with no sleeping draught or poison to confuse matters, it seemed that nothing could spoil the happy ending.
But in a final cruel act, the despised and rejected Paris rushed upon them and opened his coat to trigger a suicide bomb, killing all three in an instant.
The brothers were finally reconciled over the tatters of Juliet’s bomb-torn dress.
Not often do you come away from a performance feeling that you have been on a journey deep into the heart of other’s people’s lives.
This was the World Shakespeare Festival at its finest.
Richard III/The Comedy of Errors, Hampstead Theatre, 25/29 June 2011
Propeller’s double-bill of Richard III and The Comedy of Errors looked much better in the bigger space of the Hampstead Theatre than they had done on the more cramped stage of the Watermill near Newbury where I had first seen them.
The larger stage particularly suited Propeller’s expansive physical comedy, which was the highlight of both productions.
A bigger theatre also meant a bigger audience, and the laughs and squeals from the more substantial Hampstead crowds must have lifted the mood of the cast.
It was very enjoyable to watch Propeller’s bright colour palette being splashed across a much broader canvas.
Performing in the capital meant some specific London references were used in the productions. They managed to work in mentions of Boris Johnson, Camden Council and the Oyster card.
More crucially, the scene in Richard III where the crookback encountered the mayor and citizens of London saw the audience being addressed as if they were the crowd that Richard was trying to sway.
A second view of Propeller’s Comedy of Errors provided an insight into how some of the comic touches in the production had originated in a close reading of the text.
The police officer who arrested various of the characters wore leather trousers. Every time he took a step, a duck whistle sounded, creating the impression that his leather trousers were continuously squeaking.
This was derived from Dromio of Syracuse’s description of him in 4.2, which stated among other things that the officer was “in a case of leather”.
At every mention of the gold chain that Antipholus of Ephesus had commissioned, a percussion instrument made a ‘ding’ noise.
The textual origin of this lies in another line from Dromio of Syracuse in 4.3:
Dromio of Syracuse
Not on a band, but on a stronger thing;
A chain, a chain! Do you not hear it ring?
What, the chain?
Dromio of Syracuse
No, no, the bell: ’tis time that I were gone:
It was two ere I left him, and now the clock
Adriana’s mistaken but understandable assumption that Dromio was referring to the chain ringing was incorporated into the production so that each reference to the chain was accompanied by a ringing sound.
On a general level, a repeat look at Propeller’s Richard III was more enjoyable than the first view. Familiarity with their gory, light-hearted take on the play meant that it no longer disappointed. It was possible to appreciate the production as another of their comedies rather than regret their failure to use the unique perspective provided by their all-male cast to explore the play seriously.
But on a positive note, another view of their Comedy of Errors brought home the intricate detail that had gone into the staging of the physical comedy.
The chaos of riotous onstage moments relies, ironically, on meticulous order and preplanning.
Another enjoyable feature of my second look at The Comedy of Errors was a proper chance to see and hear the cast singing a medley of eighties songs that formed the background to their charity collection.
The cast used up most of the interval in that production to raise money for charity, when they could have stayed backstage having a rest.
Propeller’s sell-out London run was followed by an announcement that their next season will include a reboot of their 2005 production of The Winter’s Tale and a new version of a play they have previously performed, Henry V.
Expect tickets for their return visit to the Hampstead to go fast.
Macbeth, BBC Four, 12 December 2010
Tempted by tricksters into pursuing illusory dreams of glory, a set of deeply unlikeable characters took their first faltering steps towards their sordid ambitions, only to find themselves plumbing the depths of depravity in a spectacle of gut-wrenching terror.
But enough about The X Factor. A high-minded cultural alternative was on offer at the same time over on BBC Four, which had decided to schedule Rupert Goold’s film version of his stage production of Macbeth against the TV talent show.
The film proved itself to be a more complete realisation of what were obviously the cinematic ambitions of the original theatre production.
The Chichester stage set had featured a lift that transported characters in and out of the subterranean world of the play. Much of the action centred on a tiled kitchen with a white sink prominent throughout. Newsreel of Soviet era battles was projected onto the back wall to complement the cast’s contemporaneous uniforms.
Macduff’s murder took place in a train carriage, which was suggested to our imaginary forces by chairs, straphangers and sound effects. The witches were nurses, cooks and servants whose malevolent presence punctuated the action.
So to see all of these features given an extra level of screen realism forcefully hinted that the stage production had been Goold’s imperfect attempt to make concrete his particular vision of the play, a project that could only be fully accomplished via the medium of film.
The film maintained the original production’s reversal of the first two scenes enabling the general historical context of the play to be set out, only then to focus on the witches and their role in the action.
The first meeting with the witches, as Macbeth and Banquo entered the empty vastness of the ballroom and found his nemeses stood in rigid formation around their drip stand mannequin with its bleeding heart and glasses, was an arresting sight. They acted throughout like an insurgent robot army from another dimension.
Welbeck Abbey with its underground ballroom and tunnels was perhaps the only location in the country where filming could reproduce the implied world of the stage version.
But with film to play with, Goold eventually took the brakes off his imagination completely and let it rip.
The speeded up movements and echoey distorted voices of the nurses as they prepared to give Macbeth electrostatically charged premonitions of his fate using reanimated corpses, created a sequence that assaulted the senses with its exhilarating display of otherworldly power.
Their trochaic tetrameter pounded out like a rap, at which point Akala of the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, if he had been watching, would surely have sat upright and started taking notes.
The other big advantage of film is its ability to show us the close-up detail of a performer’s facial acting.
Having realised the full implications of his vaulting ambition and with his face filling the screen, Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth looked off into the darkness with small pin-pricks of light shining from his eyes to tell us “Stars, hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires”.
When gazing on the vision of Banquo’s heirs, Macbeth’s head loomed so large that this lower jaw and forehead were cropped out of shot. His dead eyes told us just as much as his words.
But this world of close-up was one in which the more dramatic features of Kate Fleetwood’s Lady Macbeth became the true gauge of the couple’s downward spiral.
While Macbeth gave us a series of variations on the theme of grim, every new gradation of his wife’s decline from guilt into despair, madness and self-destruction was etched in detail onto the hypnotic, geometrical contours of her face.
However, as if to underline that no medium is ever perfect, film also showed itself to have its disadvantages.
Although this version of the stage production could show us more detail than a front row seat in the Minerva Theatre ever could, it was still restricted by its basis in a theatre text rather than a film screenplay.
There were some minor excursions to show us Macbeth’s purges, but the medium felt underused for having only to replicate a series of events that were originally presented in a theatre.
The stage production had an interval in the middle of the banquet scene which enabled a neat trick to be performed that was not reproduced in the screen version.
Just before the break, Banquo appeared and walked the length of the dining table causing Macbeth to react in horror. This action was cut short by the interval. After the audience returned for the second half the appearance of Banquo was repeated, but this time with Banquo invisible and Macbeth reacting to thin air.
The BBC Four production was a slick studio album compared with the urgent warts-and-all immediacy of NT Live, which still remains the best medium for conveying the excitement of live performance.
But as television adaptations of Shakespeare go, this has to count among the very best.
Shame then, that the overnight viewing figures showed that just 252,000 viewers or 0.8% of the available audience watched the broadcast.
The good news is that a DVD of this Macbeth is to be released next year.