From left: Pam Patel (Juliet), Nadia Kidwai and Marc Bendavid (Romeo) after the opening night performance of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Romeo and Juliet (CBC)
How do you keep Shakespeare relevant and fresh hundreds of years after it was written? Cue the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and their newest production of Romeo and Juliet set in modern day Jerusalem with Jewish Montagues and Muslim Capulets.
The play itself however, stuck almost word-for-word to Shakespeare's lines. There were passing, and somewhat superficial references to the place and culture of the setting --Benvolio wore a Kippa, Juliet wore a loose headscarf and there was the sound of the Adhan (Muslim call to prayer) playing in the background at one point. However, within two minutes of the famous opening sonnet, I had already forgotten about the Muslim/Jewish context.
I expected them to push the envelope a little but more. Maybe a little inter-faith dialogue between Romeo and Juliet? What's more romantic than that? Or, on a serious note, have the context pose a challenge to our perceptions of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
However, sticking rigorously to Shakespeare was also important. There was one scene in the play last night that struck me: It was when Juliet's parents inform her that she must marry a man of their choice, not hers. Juliet refuses and is grabbed by her father in anger and pushed to the ground. 'Whoa', I thought, rather eloquently to myself. 'Is this coming straight out of the 'How to feed into the false narrative that forced marriages are common in Muslim families' playbook?' Was this scene why the Capulets were chosen to be Muslim?
After the play I asked the director Steven Schipper this question, and found his answer very instructive. Schipper responded that the decision was random, and that "...these issues happen in all communities, in all cultures, in all families."
CBC asked me to see the play to give my perspective as a 'Muslim' and asked to find 'a Jew' to share their perspective. And so the lovely Shelley Faintuch -- whom I had known from years before -- was my date for the night.
While we were there to give our perspectives based on our faiths, in actuality we were simply 'Shelley and Nadia' last night and not 'the Jew and the Muslim.' And really that is the point and the very essence of Romeo and Juliet: We often label each other and form subconscious preconceived notions as a result, without ever interacting as people. However it's not until we engage one another at the human level that our differences often become invisible and irrelevant, sliding off like Juliet's rather slippery headscarf last night.
Above all, MTC should be applauded for giving contemporary resonance to Juliet's iconic line, that 'A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.'