It's Shakespeare, but not as you know it: World Theatre Day (27 March), World Shakespeare Festival (23 April)
- World Theatre Day, 27 March
- World Shakespeare Festival, begins 23 April
I fly in to Baghdad late at night. People fall silent as the plane banks sharply and the outline of the city swings into view. It is eerily dark, with the occasional cluster of lights powered by private generators and the sudden flare of giant bonfires.
"Are you American?" asks a hopeful-looking young man by the baggage carousel. "Do you like chocolate?"
The checkpoint on the airport road is manned by young, sweet-looking Iraqi soldiers. Someone has threaded a garland of plastic flowers along the razor wire.
In the Baghdad Iraqi Theatre Company's rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, commissioned for the World Shakespeare Festival, I sit with my laptop, editing the English translation so that it fits the rhythm of the Iraqi version. I work with a literal translation by film-maker Raad Mushatat. The play will be performed in Arabic, with English subtitles. The director, Monadhil Daood, begins by explaining the day's scenes to me.
It is a beautiful piece, full of life and music and ritual. The language is deceptively simple, but endlessly inventive and heavy with meaning.
At home I am often asked about the foreign-language productions that will be performed during the festival. A common question is: "How do they cope with Shakespeare's complex language?" I wonder if there is an expectation inherent in the question that they will produce beautiful, literary translations, which will stay as close as possible to the original text. Do we expect them to perform close approximations of British productions, but in foreign clothes? Because they won't.
Serious artists encounter Shakespeare as a playwright, his work to be transplanted and made sense of through the prism of a different reality and set of culture references. They tell the Shakespeare story they are compelled to tell, appropriating characters, narrative, moral dilemmas, symbolism and themes in a way that, I would argue, embodies the true dramatic spirit of Shakespeare.
This fluidity is what makes commissioning artists around the world a never-ending odyssey of discovery and delight. And it offers audiences a range of perspectives and approaches to the plays, as well as direct, unfiltered insights into other cultures.
So when Daood says his Romeo and Juliet is an Iraqi one - with Iraqi rhythm, Iraqi feeling - he's not talking about a new touristic setting, but a wholesale appropriation into Iraqi culture.
Take Mercutio's Queen Mab speech. Instead of the queen of the fairies galloping through lovers' brains in her hazelnut-shell chariot, the Iraqi Mercutio draws on a folk tale that Daood was told as a child by his mother. It is about a beetle with ruby lips and kohl around her eyes, who sits by her door weaving a carpet. Along comes a radish seller, who asks her to marry him.
"If I marry you and one day you are angry with me, how will you punish me?"
"I will beat you with a radish."
"But my little body couldn't bear the skin of an onion."
A string of vegetable-selling suitors fails to answer the question satisfactorily, until along comes a rat, who says he wouldn't beat her, but would stroke her with his tail. Satisfied, the beetle marries him. In the night, she gets hungry and the rat goes in search of food for her. He finds a big jar of molasses but, reaching in, he topples over. The beetle searches for her rat and finds him dead at the bottom of the jar.
She bemoans her luck: "Yes, I was hungry. It was my wedding night! All my life I've been hungry and searching for a husband. Where are all the men? (.) God is Great! War after war! Where are our men? (.) They spend their lives at war. And when we've finished fighting our neighbours we fight each other. Haven't you had enough? Enough! We are hungry and we want molasses."
Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio fly over Baghdad on the beetle's carpet, calling down to the statues dotted around the wrecked city.
Shakespeare's plays, we are told by recent Royal Shakespeare Company and British Council research, are studied by 50 per cent of the world's schoolchildren. Across the Arab world, in the 1970s, it was fashionable for dictators such as Saddam Hussein to decree that the curriculum would include a scene from The Merchant of Venice - Shakespeare was appropriated to reinforce anti-Semitism in young minds.
I talk to a group of women teachers at an Iraqi wedding. Their English is perfect and their love for Shakespeare and Dickens knows no bounds. Now, they tell me, laughing, Romeo and Juliet is creeping into the curriculum instead.
It is New Year's Eve and there is a big party at the National Theatre, with singers, folk dancing and poets to celebrate the withdrawal of American troops. Al-Fateh Square is criss-crossed with multicoloured lights and its new fountain, carved in the shape of Aladdin's lamp, cascades with water for the first time. Later, we stand on the roof of our apartment block and watch fireworks shooting up into the night sky above Baghdad.
Deborah Shaw is director of the World Shakespeare Festival, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad will be performed at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and Riverside Studios in London. www.worldshakespearefestival.org.uk
Check out the Royal Shakespeare Company's profile on TES Resources for a range of teaching resources.
BBC Learning has joined forces with the Royal Shakespeare Company for the World Shakespeare Festival, and will launch a series of digital resources called "Shakespeare Unlocked in April". For details, see www.bbc.co.ukshakespeare
As part of the World Shakespeare Festival, a filmed version of I, Cinna (The Poet), a new play by Tim Crouch inspired by Julius Caesar, will be streamed free and exclusively to schools in the UK on 2 July 2012. Teachers who wish to participate should visit http:bit.lywYovj0
IN THE FORUMS
Teachers discuss the religious undertones of Romeo and Juliet. Why not share your analysis?
For all links and resources visit www.tes.co.ukresources026
Key stage 1: for all ages and stages
It may seem impossible to tackle Shakespeare at key stage 1, but TES English's guide explains how his work can be translated for the young or old.
Key stage 2: fables from afar
The mystical and magical from the Far and Middle East are explored in this scheme of work from HamiltonTrust.
Key stage 3: O Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Explore every aspect of Shakespeare's most famous play with SuePinnick's workbook.
Key stage 4: flowers on the razor wire
Tackle questions about war with lukeblackburn's source material on the Iraqi invasion.
Key stage 5: iambic pentameter
In translation, Shakespeare's language can get lost. Rediscover his linguistic style with this resource from the Royal Shakespeare Company.