Tonight I went to see Romeo and Juliet in Bagdad. I was in a rush to see it, a bit tired, and honestly very ambivalent in general about the performance. But I thought it would be a good cultural study in theater. I was right and I was wrong. It was great as a cultural study, but I was wrong in thinking I wouldn’t be interested in it. On the contrary, this was one of the best performances I’ve seen since arriving here. The mix of culture with Shakespeare’s traditional story was absolutely brilliant. The cast alluded to tradition similar to Shakespeare’s time (man owning the rights to his daughter) but one character (a new one called “The Teacher” a chorus-like character that interacts with the other cast members) disowns this tradition when it would come between two people who love each other. Romeo and Juliet are cast somewhat like Shakespeare’s character – young and impetuous but given that we are provided with much more information about the blood feud it is also given that they are mature in understanding the ill nature of war.
Overall there were many many differences between this production and the original Shakespearean play. The language obviously – the play was in Arabic with English surtitles (good for a non-Arabic speaker – much would have been lost but I did have to alternate between watching the screen so I didn’t miss anything and watching the action and I didn’t like having to split my attention but I did like the way emotion and feeling came across in the Arabic language). Sometimes other languages have a better ease at expressing passion than English – simply wasn’t created as an emotional language. I’m certainly glad this Company was formed. I also liked that dance and wedding customs from Iraq were brought in, but there were two things I liked most of all. Firstly the way the cast used the space. Absolutely inspired (does that sound as arrogantly posh as I think it does?) Well if so I blame it on listening to the very posh people going to see the show as they discussed theater and art around me. It was actually a very upscale venue compared to what I was expecting – I figured I was getting a less funded, less modern theater. Instead I got completely modern design, two eateries, and four different “studios” where productions are performed. Well in Studio Two they had minimal set but were able to move it in various different ways to suit the scene. This also means scene changes were very well done. It was quite dark so they often used light to enhance the show but mostly it was just the talent coming through that was impressive. They interacted in a way that gave a good view all around (unlike Henry V where I saw a lot of backs of characters even though that play was supposedly designed for in the round productions – check out that post again for an update on “Setting the Scene” which I forgot to add before). The theater also had seats on three sides like the Globe, but this was general seating, comfy chairs inside, and shaped more in a square than circle. In any case it clearly was set to fulfill the needs of this performance and I appreciated it. It really gave me an insight into the “Black Box” ideal of stage setting.
The second thing I really loved were the cultural references. A few stick out – first that a couple characters say “But he already has three wives and we don’t really agree with polygamy here in Iraq” which was funny since (as I assume) polygamy is still a fairly common occurrence in Iraq. The second was maybe not a cultural addition but a new feature nonetheless and that is of Mercutio’s dream – there is mention of dreaming by Shakespeare’s writing but this describes something different altogether – the story of Lady Beetle. She who has ruby lips and kohl on her eyes who sits spinning and weaving her carpet for when she gets married. A radish seller comes by and asks if he will marry her. She asks “When we are married what will you punish me with?” He says “I will beat you with one my radishes” and she replies “But I couldn’t handle a slice of a sweet onion” Then a lettuce seller comes by and asks if he will marry her. She asks “When we are married what will you punish me with?” He says”I will beat you with one my lettuce leaves” and she replies “But I couldn’t handle a slice of a sweet onion.” Then a rat comes by and asks if she will marry him. She asks of him the same question and he replies “I will not beat you, only stroke you with my long tail” So they get married – this whole scene is done by Mercutio, Benvolio, and Romeo as they pick up on specific lines so take on different parts in affected voices. It was really quite wonderful. And then in the end instead of Romeo and Juliet committing dual suicide, they die by Paris who is affronted that he cannot marry Juliet (even though he already has three wives), who sets off a suicide bomb in their sanctuary. This comes after the two brothers (Capulet and Montague) reconcile after seeing how wrong they were to get set in their wrongs and allow so much death to occur on their behalf whereas in the original the two families only come together after the deaths of their children.
Pictures of the Studios including box office and the hallway next to the restaurant.