'Romeo and Juliet' gets Middle Eastern twist
"All the world's a stage": The prophetic words that William Shakespeare wrote in early 1600 have captured the imagination of the Iraqi Theatre Company director Monadhil Daood, who can't wait to debut his production of the bard's Romeo and Juliet, called Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, in Britain this month.
"This will be a nice return to the UK for me," he says. "I actually acted at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon four years ago. The play was Richard III; it was in Arabic with surtitles."
A familiar face on stage and screen in his native Baghdad, Daood and more than 20 members of his theatre company will be participating in the World Shakespeare Festival, a celebration of the playwright's work, as part of the London 2012 Festival. It's the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad, bringing leading international performers and more than 60 partners together for a UK-wide celebration of the arts from April 23 until November.
"I have changed Shakespeare's text and written a new play. There will also be live music in the production with instruments like the cello, clarinet and Iraqi drums," says Daood. "My text is based on the 2003 invasion of Iraq and brings us up until now - and we see Romeo and Juliet reunited after they fell in love nine years ago."
Though purists may balk at the idea of the Bard's 1597 tragedy being tampered with, Deborah Shaw, the associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and director of the World Shakespeare Festival (WSF) argues a convincing case for allowing artists free rein to interpret his most famous plays for the forthcoming event; the intention being to make the work of England's pre-eminent dramatist just as relevant and accessible as it was in his day.
"Shakespeare's plays have been out there for 400 years, so he doesn't belong to Britain anymore," she says. "I have been going around the world talking to various artists and hearing about what play seems to speak to the place where they are. I've commissioned work from Mexico to Brazil and Russia and challenged artists by saying, 'If anything were possible, what would you like to do?' "
By setting his Romeo and Juliet in modern-day Baghdad, Daood highlights the exasperation but also the aspirations of Iraqis who have lived through the past decade's cycle of revenge and violence. The sectarian tensions within the country are also something he explores, albeit discreetly.
"Yes, Romeo and Juliet are both Muslim and the audience will feel the conflict I'm highlighting in my performance," he says. "But there's much more to the play than that and I never actually mention 'Sunni' and 'Shi'a' in my text - ever."
Though the iambic pentameters may not sound familiar, the play's central characters of Romeo, Juliet, Capulet, Montague, Paris and Mercutio certainly are. Daood has also enlisted the help of one of Iraq's much-loved actors - at the ripe age of 82 - to play the pivotal role of a scholar in this adaptation.
"Sami Abdulhameed will play the new character I have created," says Daood. "He's an Iraqi history teacher who acts like a godfather to Romeo."
Having paid regular visits to Iraq over the past 12 months to oversee the production of the play, Shaw has been particularly struck by the commitment of the cast to seeing the project through to its conclusion.
"It's very hard to rehearse in Baghdad, as you can imagine," she says. "It's particularly hard for women, and we actually lost two Juliets because there's the pressure for women to cover up and for Juliet not to be touched by Romeo - these kinds of things. This company is doing a true representation of a passionate Iraqi society and it takes a lot of courage to trust the company, trust the director and say: 'I want to appear in front of these big audiences and make this statement'."
For the impending UK tour, the role of Juliet will be played by Sarwa Rasool, a young Iraqi professional actress whose participation was heartily supported by her husband Qays Adnan, who plays the role of one of the Capulet servants, Gregory.
With the challenges of casting overcome, the Shakespearean-cum-Arabic translation was the next thing for Shaw to tackle. Having spent much time working with the company's designated interpreter, Radd Mushatat, to ensure the surtitles - which will be projected for the audience throughout the performance - would be as true to Daood's script as they could be, she now also admits to speaking "shway" Arabic through the osmosis process.
"The English translation is not exactly the same as the complex Iraqi dialect because it is quite spare and earthy in style," says Shaw. "It is not attempting to be poetic and florid in any way, but attempts to be very rich and dense through simple language."
"Take a phrase like 'he is a man in his head', which is one of the lines said," she says. "In Iraq, 'being a man' has a lot of cultural and social references that don't mean the same thing to an English audience. And then, of course, there's Shakespeare's language where he's inventing all these incredible metaphors, mixed words and action-words that mean many different things all in one. So, it's really endlessly fascinating."
When it comes to Daood's depiction of fair Verona, the director has taken a conceptual approach: a large water pipe representing Iraq's efforts to rebuild itself but also its eternal spring of hope. Symbolic as it is practical, the plastic tube has been adapted to different scenes, at times representing a house, a church or a mosque.
After the play has wowed crowds in Stratford, the set will be packed and transported to London's Riverside Studios as part of the RSC's collaboration with LIFT - the London International Festival of Theatre.
"We're having a little Arab theatre season there," says Shaw. "After Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, the following week it's the Tunisian project Macbeth: Leila & Ben. We're doing lots of work with the British Council and there will be plenty of debate, discussion and dialogue in particular around Shakespeare in the Arab world, but also a broader look at culture and society."
In terms of attracting a solid crowd from the Middle East region to Britain for the Olympic's cultural attractions, Shaw has full confidence.
"When we did Richard III - An Arab Tragedy in Stratford, the Arab audience found it," she says, smiling. "And I suspect that when we're in West London, which is so close to where the Arab community lives, that's when we'll get an even higher proportion attending.
"The Iraqi theatre company is totally independent and with this production it's helping set a cultural agenda again - giving a cultural voice to the civic debate about what society is wanting. In a society that is so militarised at the moment and with so much political talk about 'the differences' that exist - culture will always be about what binds us." The National