On a makeshift stage in Amman, Jordan, a dark-haired Romeo leant forward on his crutches and called up to his beloved on her balcony. There were sighs, swoons and grand declarations, and on a screen on the wall beside him, Juliet, 200 miles away in Homs, Syria, vowed, via Skype, to marry him.
As far as adaptations go, Romeo and Juliet Separated by War is a major revision of Shakespeare’s work. The cast has shrunk, the ending changed completely and the action split between two stages in separate countries.
None of this fazes Nawar Bulbul, the director, who is an award-winning Syrian actor exiled in Amman. “I think Shakespeare would be very happy to know this is happening,” he said. “Everybody connects with Shakespeare — his plays are for all of us.”
Romeo and Juliet is Bulbul’s second foray into refugee theatre. Last spring he directed 100 children from Zaatari refugee camp in a production of King Lear. The play resonated with Jordanians and the more than 600,000 Syrians sheltering here.
This year he looked homeward to Homs, to those still in danger. “I wanted to reach these children, but there is no way to get into Homs. So we use theatre, via Skype,” he said.
It took Bulbul three months to adapt the play and work out logistics, and another three months were spent in rehearsal. Five actors are in Homs and five in Amman, on a stage in the attic of a recovery centre for war-wounded Syrians. Brahim, the 13-year-old actor playing Romeo, has been a patient at the centre for more than a year after nearly losing both legs to shelling that killed his mother and three brothers.
Brahim and his Amman co-stars perform to the audience and to a large screen above the stage, where the Homs cast appears. A camera beside the screen captures the Amman action and displays it in Homs.
The Homs location is secret and the actors are known, even to their director, only by their first names. They perform in masks to protect their identities.
Unlike in Shakespeare’s version, in Bulbul’s play, there is no tragic ending. “Enough death,” the actors say, throwing down daggers and dashing poison to the floor. “Why are you killing us?” asks the Homs girl playing Juliet’s friend Roxanne. “We want to live like the rest of the world!”
At this, audiences in both cities whooped and cheered and shouted in Arabic: “Enough death!”
With Syria’s war now in its fifth year and children there facing death every day, the words hit home. For the actors in Homs the connection to another world seemed to offer hope. Each night Shaima, the 14-year-old girl playing Juliet, stretched her curtain call out with endless goodbyes and thank-yous, unwilling to sever the link to Amman.
The run was extended from two to five performances after the cast demanded more time with a project that had filled their lives for three months. The final show is today. “For me, theatre is like medicine. This play gave these kids a reason to live,” Bulbul said. But he knows that it cannot run for ever.
“The show must end, but it’s not over,” he said over a coffee at his home in Amman. He puffed on a cigarette and looked into the distance. “My dream? Romeo and Juliet, in Homs and Shakespeare’s Globe.”