at the Swan Theatre, Monday 30th April 2012
*The performance reviewed was a preview*
In theory, Monadhil Daood’s production of Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, presented as part of the World Shakespeare Festival by the RSC in collaboration with the Iraqi Theatre Company, should give the play a potency which hasn’t been evident in Britain for at least the last half a century. Setting Shakespeare’s text, we’d assume, in a post-war Iraq, would at last make the overbearing nature of the parents make sense whilst the necessary stealth of the central couple would usher in a deeper tragic pathos. Unfortunately, however, whether through lack of time, funds or artistic prowess, this production fails to ever take off and is depressingly underwhelming.
Daood’s text (translated into English by Raad Mushatat and Deborah Shaw) is perhaps the most inriguing aspect of this version. Montague and Capulet are here brothers (making the lovers cousins), and have been torn apart by the war, spending the last 9 years in feud whilst their offspring long for one another. A clever touch adds a character – the Teacher – who offers the voice of reason to the characters and attempts to orchestrate proceedings though he is powerless to do so, and is countered by Paris, cast here as a Mujahadeen, who manages to gain a sick victory at the close. The language is poetic in its simplicity (though where Daood’s work ends and the translators’ work begins is difficult to tell), using such phrases as “The night should be for lovers” to revel in a new-found freedom of speech. Daood also manages to shift the focus of the tragedy, which can be found not in the fact Romeo kills himself even though Juliet is sleeping but because there is no need after all for them to be in the fateful spot where they meet they demise, seeing as their parents were close to reconciling.
The show falls apart with Daood’s disappointing direction, which fails to give the production any kind of drama and, although fast at 90 minutes, lacks anything in the way of pace. Overly-simplified images, reminiscent of my GCSE-drama days, litter the show, and images are created in which very little thought seems to have been invested (though I did enjoy the symbolic gestures which suited actions to words – something we should see more of). In dance scenes, actors move out of time, and every now and then a body inexplicably appears on a balcony only to disappear a moment later. The text, which is so bitingly political, just isn’t given the hearing it deserves.
Ali Khassaf’s score, however, which runs throughout the whole piece, is fantastic, and acts like a movie-soundtrack, suggesting emotions for us to feel. Unfortunately, it’s in a far from harmonious partnership with Jabbar Jodi Alabodi’s garish and inconsistent lighting, which has that kid-in-a-sweet-shop feel, and his stark set, with an all-but-redundant central tube.
The cast manages to inject some humour and humanity into Daood’s lacklustre production, but they generally struggle to ever find genuine emotion. Ahmed Salah Moneka and Sarwa Rasool’s Romeo and Juliet capture some teenage angst, but the stakes don’t seem to be very high and they are not together long enough for us to ever start to empathise. The early scene between Haider Monathir (Capulet) and Maimoon Abdalhamza (Montague) is truly moving, though something is surely wrong when the youngest person of the company is upstaging everyone (Ameer Hussein’s brilliant Benvolio, in a touching double-act with Fikrat Salim’s Mercutio).
That so much could have been done with this production is the most frustrating thing about it. The material and context is so rich, screaming out to be mined for further intricacies, but very little effort is taken to deal with it. Daood and his comany offer a solid and vaguely interesting retelling of a story we know so well, but its full potential is never realised.
Though my only first-hand experience of the World Shakespeare Festival has been to-date at the RSC, this is precisely my problem with the it; these artists have been given an opportunity to take the Bard’s work and try them in settings in which he’s rarely found himself, delving deep into his plays to question and challenge audiences. Why would you play it safe when you’ve got the whole world watching you? When you are given the opportunity to interrogate these gargantuan ideas on this scale, why would you shy away from it? As Daood says himself in the programme, “Shakespeare’s spirit can intimidate the politicians”. So why aren’t we intimidating them? I’m off to the Globe later this week, and this is still early days for the WSF, so things may improve, but if events continue in this safe-but-ever-so-slightly-different vein, then the whole festival will have been worthless. For once, we have the ability to open up debate on a global scale. Here’s to hoping that opportunity won’t be missed.