- Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad
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“The night should be for lovers,” lamented the Father Lawrence-like “Teacher” as the play’s opening sounds—sirens, bombs, machine guns—still rang in the audience’s ears. So began Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, an Arabic adaptation only loosely based on Shakespeare’s play. The RSC commissioned the Iraqi Theater Company to write and perform this work as part of the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival, and in the weeks before the Olympics the company traveled from Baghdad to Stratford-upon-Avon to London. Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad was their first play since the official end of combat in Iraq, and scars of war as well as fresh wounds from continued violence formed the context for both artists and characters. As director and adapter Monadhil Daood’s program notes explained, “I am the legitimate son of tragedy . . . Understand that we live in a place where terrorists break our home over our heads.”
Because the script vacillated between histrionics and honesty and there was little chemistry between the title characters, the production was not wholly successful as theater. It did, however, provide important new perspectives on both Shakespeare’s play and life in post-war Iraq. Gutting the familiar young-love plotline, the production brought to light elements of Romeo and Juliet which are less often emphasized: it highlighted the machismo of young men and the avarice of their fathers, showing how the muddle of youth, passion, and greed lead to such tragedies as we read about in four-hundred-year-old plays and breaking-news headlines.
In this play’s world, Romeo and Juliet were not Veronese teenagers but rather world-weary young adults who had been lovers nine years ago, that is, before the war. Additionally, Capulet and Montague were not only business rivals but also brothers: their feud was over the pearl boat left to them by their father (first cousin marriage is not taboo in Islamic culture). Capulet wore a red and white scarf, marking him as a Sunni, while Montague’s black and white scarf made him a Shiite.
When the audience met Romeo—the handsome, earnest, but by no means naive Ahmed Salah Moneka—he was standing in the rain. His words were the clichés of a man in love: “My heart is so hot it will warm the cold rain.” The phrasing of lines like this might have had more subtlety in the Arabic of Daood’s adaptation, but translated into English [End Page 268] by Raac Muschatat and Deborah Shaw and projected in surtitles, they often felt clichéd or heavy-handed. While Shakespeare’s play also has its share of platitudes, Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad seemed to turn trite or artificial at the wrong moments. Romeo’s hackneyed opening line, for example, undermined the grown-up wariness that quickly came to define his character.
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Cultural context raised the stakes, if that’s possible for Romeo and Juliet, when the lovers were reunited at the Capulets’ party. Reminding audiences of the risks the Shiite actor Sarwa Rasool was taking in her scarf-less portrayal, the Sunni Juliet warned her lover: “My kinsmen would kill anyone who tried to look at their women.”
Juliet’s father further established the Capulets’ Sunni status by trying to marry Juliet to Allain Hussein’s chilling Paris. Dressed in a trench coat and round sunglasses, Paris was immediately recognizable to Arab audience...