by Freddy Rokem
Why does Romeo have to be Palestinian and Juliet Israeli, I asked myself when first reading that the famous Shakespearean play about this young cou¬ple will be coproduced by the Khan and the El-Qasaba theaters in Jerusalem? While watching the performance of Romeo and Juliet in the large hall for¬merly used by the Israeli Electric Corporation located behind the Jerusalem railway station, which had been transformed into an impressive theatrical arena for this occasion, the question about the casting constantly came back.
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet
is first of all a play about stereotypes and about the long-standing and deeply rooted hatred and strife between two families living in the city of Verona. The blooming love between Romeo and Juliet is destroyed by the fatal combination of these stereotypes and by the enmity between the two families. Because of deeply-rooted prejudices their love is doomed before it can begin to bloom.
I am sure that the two directors, Fuad Awad (from El-Qasaba Theater) and Eran Baniel (from the Khan Theater), as well as the members of the impressive Palestinian and Israeli casts and the other artists who have con¬tributed to this complex production, have been deeply aware of these issues in their work. According to reports in the Israeli press the rehearsals frequently had to be interrupted because of both political and economic difficulties, which are really two sides of the same coin. Finally, however it was possible to present this coproduction in Jerusalem as well as in sev¬eral places in Europe, among them the Festival of the City of Lille in France which was one of its main sponsors. From this point of view the copro¬duction of Romeo and Juliet is a success story.
However, Shakespeare's play is also an extremely complex work of art, overflowing with beautiful love poetry which has to be carefully analyzed and investigated when a work of this kind, in the city of Jerusalem, is pre¬sented in the year 1994 with Palestinians and Israelis. Is this poetry able to throw any new light on the issues which we are living with every day? And what does the young couple represent in this specific context?
Ultimately, the casting of Romeo with a Palestinian actor (Khalifa Natur) and Juliet with an Israeli actress (Orna Katz), even if they in many ways play their parts very well, says nothing unexpected about the ideological, the political and the cultural conflicts in the contemporary city of Jerusalem. It merely reproduces the different hegemonic power structures as they have developed since 1967, as seen from an Israeli perspective.
What I mean is that Israelis are frequently exposed in different ways to Palestinian men. The latter appear as workers, as politicians who are much more exposed in the media now than before, and as terrorists. The perfor¬mance reproduces this socioeconomic stereotype without questioning it. In this production the Palestinian Romeo is just a nice guy, but nothing more. On the other hand, I cannot, of course, say exactly what an Israeli woman represents for a Palestinian, and what it means to fall in love with one. From an Israeli perspective, however, this casting is somehow more stereo¬typical than the opposite situation.
It would somehow have been much more interesting for me as an Israeli to have seen a Palestinian Juliet. When Joshua Sobol placed Samira, a Palestinian woman, in the central role of his 1984 play Shooting Magda
(in Hebrew it is actually called Ha-Palestinait),
the fact that she was at the same time both Palestinian and a woman had a very strong effect on the stage. And it could perhaps have been interesting for a Palestinian to see an Israeli Romeo, who is neither a soldier nor a settler.
I am not arguing that the casting was wrong. What I feel is rather that all those things we usually take for granted had not really been problematized in this performance. The acting did not draw our attention to how we per¬ceive each other, nor did the production as a whole confront this actively. They were just taken for granted, like all the other minor details in Jerusalem which in fact represent Israeli hegemony.
Take for example the associations which the hall of the Israeli Electric Corporation has for a Palestinian; what does it say with regard to power, in particular here in Jerusalem. During the performance this thought, for me as an Israeli, made me feel a little uncomfortable in this particular con¬text. Because, in the end, the play had nothing important to say about what seemed obvious. Except for a few stones suddenly cast onto the stage, it just ignored these issues. And even these stones were anonymously thrown onto the stage (as if the stones in the Intifada were not thrown by hands). The performance says nothing about this and about the Palestinian struggle for independence and the official Israeli reaction to the struggle.
In Jerusalem, we have for better or for worse been forced to accept that almost everything has an additional significance. To watch a performance in a hall belonging to the Israeli Electric Corporation is not a neutral feature. As a result of this, in the Khan and El-Qasaba production, the tragic love story between Romeo and Juliet has become almost completely privatized; it has become a human interest story in one of the weekly newspaper sup¬plements.
Also the choice of costumes, a kind of antiquated Renaissance clothing, which literally have the smell of theater storage rooms, and the abstract but rather clumsy blocks of scenery filling the large hall, somehow fail to make us understand why Jerusalem is a city of conflict and strife, and why the cooperation of the two theaters is so important. The very beginning of the performance, when all the members of the cast harmoniously line up and sing in front of the spectators, is indeed a very touching moment. But when the performance is over we know very little about what they feel has gone wrong in the city.
Neither Dangerous Nor Daring
For me, these issues are symptomatic of the production as a whole. The use of languages in the performance, although it has been solved from a prac¬tical point of view, is another issue which does not expose anything at all about what is really at stake ideologically. In the performance, the Palestinians, who represent the members of the Montague household, speak Arabic between themselves, while the Israelis, from the house of Capulet, speak in Hebrew. When the actors speak in Arabic the text is pro¬jected in Hebrew above the playing area, while Arabic is projected when Hebrew is spoken. But why do the actors mostly speak in Hebrew when members of the two families meet or when they confront each other? Is it, in the negative sense, an unintentional, or perhaps even a conscious reflec¬tion of the painful realities of the conflict itself?
The fact that Israelis usually do not speak Arabic, and as a rule in differ¬ent ways they take for granted that Palestinians manage in Hebrew, is reproduced in the performance itself without any further reflection. It is, in a way, just like some of the official application forms used by the Military Administration in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which are only issued in Hebrew. And the Romeo and Juliet
performance, even if the text is projected in translation on a screen above the stage when the "other" lan¬guage is spoken, too naively grants a hegemonic status to Hebrew. This is continued at a time when the deeply rooted hierarchies have to be criticized, or at least questioned, in order to be able to bring about a real change of the political realities.
One of the goals of the theater, at least when it deals directly with politi¬cal issues of this kind, as I believe the two directors intended for their pro¬duction of Romeo and Juliet
to do, is to "shock" the spectators to such an extent that they will be able to see something which they have never real¬ly been able to see before. Political theater has to be dangerous and daring. And in order to be that, it is not enough to bring actors from the two peo¬ples together and to present a bilingual performance.
Responding to Oppression
I have seen productions of classic plays which are in themselves not directly dealing with the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, which through their casting and choice of languages have been both choking and liberat¬ing at the same time. In 1985, Ilan Ronen directed Waiting for Godot, prob¬ably Samuel Beckett's most famous play, at the Haifa Municipal Theater. In this production, the two clownish characters, Didi and Gogo, waiting for the mysterious Godot who never arrives, were played in Arabic by two Israeli Palestinian actors, Yussuf Abu-Warda and Makram Khouri. The tree standing in the center of the stage, as the directions of Beckett's prescribe, had been transformed into a half-finished pole at a building site, while Didi and Gogo had become Palestinian workers waiting for not only the myste¬rious Godot, who does not show up, but also for a solution to their national problem.
When I saw this production in the over-crowded hall of the Al-Hakawati Theater in Jerusalem, performed for a predominantly Palestinian audience, there was virtually every conceivable kind of electricity in the air. The per¬formance had become an outright challenge to what both Israelis and Palestinians, each one from their own individual perspective, seemed to be taking for granted at that time. The Palestinians in this production were not just workers; they were in fact also waiting for something to appear from some metaphysical realm, which on some level they were too confused really to define or to grasp.
Similar emotions were no doubt triggered when the Al-Hakawati Theater itself performed its first productions in the beginning of the 1980s. It is, of course, hard to estimate how profoundly these performances affected the audiences in Jerusalem and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, that is, when they were not censored by the Military Administration, sometimes a few minutes before they were supposed to begin.
By working on the basis of the local storytelling traditions, the Al¬-Hakawati company, consisting of young and politically radical actors, developed an acting style on the basis of which they were able not only to respond to the oppression of their people but also to oppose it. But very lit¬tle of this particular aesthetic and ideological experience can be discerned in the present production of Romeo and Juliet, even if there are certain points where this form of acting no doubt could have been applied. I am referring to, for example, Mercutio's famous speech to Queen Mab, which is a kind of folk-tale, about the fatal effects of love.
Since Mercutio is one of Romeo's friends, this character is played by a Palestinian actor, Muhammad Bakri, who is well-known among Israelis and Palestinians for his work on stage and screen, both in Arabic and in Hebrew. When Bakri, who was born in Israel, in a village in the Galilee, and whose training is Israeli, performs Mercutio, his acting becomes what could be termed dramatic. He performs the character of Mercutio in an "Israeli" manner, instead of telling his story in the mode of Palestinian storytelling.
A Theatrical Postcard
The 1994 production of Romeo and Juliet unfortunately leads merely to a polite approval: that performances like this could be important, that per¬haps a new era has started with the mutual recognition between the PLO and Israel, and that it is therefore "nice" (in the kitschy sense of the word) to do something together.
In many ways, the play functions exactly like the polite handshake of offi¬cial recognition, unable to confront the burning issues themselves. On the stage, this kind of "handshake" transforms the Shakespearean tragedy into a melodrama, but the greater problem is that what we see on the stage adds almost nothing to what we already know about these polite, and some¬times even forced, handshakes. This, I'm sorry to say, is what this theatri¬cal postcard from the ongoing peace process finally looks like.