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.