Arab-Israeli 'Romeo' rings with reality

June 15, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

Jerusalem -- "Romeo and Juliet" has come to town. Shakespeare, always fond of a good blood feud, would doubtless approve of the casting.

Romeo and his clan of Montagues are played by Palestinian Arabs. Juliet and her rival Capulets are portrayed by Israelis. And no one will miss the irony when the young Palestinian playing Benvolio says, in Arabic, of his Hebrew-speaking foes, "If we meet, we shall not escape a brawl. For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring."

The play is scheduled to open tomorrow, but who knows for sure?

Strange things happen when similar dramas play daily on the streets, and through four months of rehearsal, the real conflict has kept interfering with the staged one.

Thus was a Palestinian Montague sometimes barred from rehearsal by Israeli soldiers, right up through last Sunday night, as they blocked his entry to Jerusalem from the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Thus was the Israeli director (there's a Palestinian director, too) threatened twice this week with death by extreme members of his clan for daring to stage a play "advertising intermarriage."

Thus did last February's massacre of Arabs in a Hebron mosque threaten to destroy the production.

And thus does the young Romeo, Khalifa Natour, worry that his Palestinian mother will disapprove when he kisses the Jewish Juliet.

But perhaps, Mr. Natour says, some good will come of all the trouble, especially if people stay to the end, when the Montagues and Capulets discover the terrible price of their hatred. "Maybe people will go out of the play with the idea that it is still possible to get along," he says.

The play's two producers -- one a Palestinian, the other an Israeli -- are billing the show as "the first official cultural co-production between Palestinians and Israelis," as Palestinian George Ibrahim described it Monday. It is a collaboration of two respected local theater groups, the Israeli Jerusalem Khan Theatre and the Palestinian Al Kasaba Theatre.

"The most important thing was to find the connection between 'Romeo and Juliet' and our reality today," says Palestinian director Fouad Awad.

The directors established one connection by scripting the play in two languages. Torrents of Hebrew and Arabic rush back and forth across the stage, seemingly at cross purposes until Romeo and Juliet somehow make the double dialogue mesh. (The audience can keep up by reading translations on a screen, in Hebrew, Arabic and English).

The directors strengthened the link with other small changes and additions. When the actors fight, they draw knives instead of swords. One result has been to produce gasps from Israeli audiences offered sneak previews of a few scenes. The image of an Arabic-speaking man pulling a knife hits home.

The most explicit link to today's events occurs when Mercutio, played by Palestinian Mohhamed Bakri, tosses a stone toward his enemies. It falls short, rattling loudly across the stage. The reference is unmistakable. Since December 1987 thousands of Arab boys have vented their anger by tossing stones at well-armed Israeli soldiers, usually coming up short themselves, as part of the Palestinian uprising known as the intifada.

Mr. Bakri is less than thrilled by the link. "When I throw the stone, everybody is thinking, 'It is the intifada,' " he says. "I am not thinking of the intifada. We are not doing the intifada here. I am not thinking Jews or Arabs as I do this play."

Other actors interviewed say they've also tried to distance their performance from the surrounding conflict. "When you are in the theater you are in a bubble, shut off from everything outside," says Orna Katz, who plays Juliet.

The bubble shattered Feb. 25, when Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein machine-gunned a mosque full of praying Arabs, killing at least 30.

"It was a very powerful reminder all of a sudden of what was happening outside," Ms. Katz says. "It brought a lot of tension."

But outside animosities have never spilled over into conflict between members of the cast, actors and directors say. Perhaps this harmony is what Mr. Awad was referring to when he said, cryptically, "We tried to come close to the reality while also moving away from it."

Before the show closes, the producers say in a joint statement, they hope "to remind all that the cost of hatred between fathers is the death of their children."

Shakespeare provides this reminder with the play's closing dialogue. The Prince of Verona stands with the grieving families over the bodies of the dead lovers, saying: "See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love . . . Go hence, to have some more talk of these sad things. Some shall be pardoned and some punished: For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo."

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