The bard comes to Qatar with a twist — this version of his classic play is set in modern-day Baghdad and performed in Arabic (with English subtitles) by the Iraqi Theatre Company. We ask director Monadhil Daood how Shakespeare would feel about this new version of his classic
So you’ve done something a bit different than the traditional Romeo and Juliet. . .
We follow the main elements of Shakespeare’s story and have many of the same characters in our version. However, the importance of Shakespeare does not lie in the story itself, but in the way the events of the story are interpreted and presented. I took my cue from Shakespeare in my own approach. We are creating a piece of theatre which reflects the modern world but which is rooted in Iraqi ritual. I believe that ritual is the soul of theatre.
How did this all start?
I founded the Iraqi Theatre Company in 2008 in Baghdad, to help re-establish and celebrate the strong tradition of theatre in Iraq. We did several productions, under very difficult conditions. Then I was approached by Deborah Shaw of the Royal Shakespeare Company with a challenge - would I like to create a new Shakespeare production for the World Shakespeare Festival, part of the Olympic cultural celebrations in the UK? The idea of that Festival was to commission work from artists around the world. To see how they use Shakespeare as a prism through which to reflect their contemporary reality. I brought together a company of some of the finest actors and new talent in Iraq and we rehearsed at the National Theatre for five months. We performed two previews in Baghdad, then went to Shakespeare’s birthplace town of Stratford-upon-Avon, to perform in the Swan Theatre belonging to the Royal Shakespeare Company for two weeks and to Riverside Studios in London for two weeks.
Where do the actors come from? What are they like?
They come from all over Iraq - from Baghdad to Basra.They are aged from 12 to 82! From the great Sami Abdulhamid, star of stage and screen and a great teacher, to young actors in their first professional role. And we like to say that we are not Sunni, Shia or Kurd - we are all of those things. We are Iraqi.
Why pick Romeo and Juliet, instead of another play?
Romeo and Juliet feels like the right play for Iraqi audiences at this time. I discussed my choice with many Iraqi writers and playwrights, who all agreed. We are living in a time of conflict and violence between communities in Iraq. The audience will see their own reality in front of them on stage. It may shock them. The truth is the same whether in Baghdad or London or Qatar, and the best theatre speaks directly from one heart to another. We hope our Iraqi Romeo and Juliet will build bridges with international audiences. We will show our Iraqi reality through modern and contemporary forms, music and singing; all the beautiful customs and traditions of our country. Our play is about how to love and hate and live and die. And we hope that if we die, we die of love.
You set it in Baghdad- how does that work?
Tragedy and poetry find a meeting place in Shakespeare. In Iraq, daily life is infused with poetry; children recite it in the playground and every household has its own poet. And as for tragedy. . . it is one of the defining characteristics of the Iraqi people.
Other than the setting, what is ‘Iraqi’ about this show?
It is not written in poetic, literary language, but in colloquial Iraqi dialect - because it is for the people. We include a traditional folk story in place of the ‘Queen Mab’ speech, which was told to me by my mother. It felt more natural and rooted in Iraqi culture. I did not want my play to feel alien. In my own writing I try to avoid what is seen as ‘poetic’ language in Arabic in favour of a style which is spare, unadorned and driven by the action – inherently dramatic rather than ‘literary’.
And the surtitles, they’re not just the regular text of the play, right? They’re a translation of your version?
Our surtitle translator - himself a poet and filmmaker who trained in London - has joked despairingly about the impossible task of translating some of these Iraqi phrases and images directly into English. He has had to search for alternative synonyms in an attempt to convey the meaning. In this task he has been joined by the Director of the World Shakespeare Festival, Deborah Shaw, who has seen rehearsals and helped with further drafts of the translation. So we hope it will make sense to English audiences.
Why is it important to perform theatre like this?
Art is a place for people to find what binds them. It creates shared communities and reminds us of our shared humanity. And it is a place of celebration.
Do you think people will ‘get it’?
Audiences have been very complimentary so far - Iraqis have cried over seeing their reality on stage and it performs a sort of cathartic role. International audiences have enjoyed the window on real Iraqi life and have said they were very moved by it. In the end, it is a universal story.
What are you hoping the audience takes away from the show?
A deeper understanding of Iraqis and their longing for the things others take for granted - a society based on love and support rather than violence and difference. An impression of the depth and tradition of Iraqi theatre. And maybe a desire to change the world!
See the play
Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad takes the stage at the Katara Cultural Village Drama Theatre October 1-3. Shows start at 7pm, performed in Arabic with English surtitles. Tickets are QR96, QR157 and QR159. For tickets, see www.katara.net. For more information on the Iraqi Theatre Company, check them out at www.iraqitheatrecompany.com. For more information about the World Shakespeare Festival, see www.worldshakespearefestival.org.uk.