Under the eaves of a hospice for Syrian refugees in Amman, Jordan, a wounded young Romeo reaches out to the blurred image of a girl on a screen. From the besieged and bombed-out city of , Syria, Juliet gazes back. Her head is covered because of her religion; her face is masked to protect her identity from the watchful regime of . This is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, performed by young people separated by war and reunited, in real time, via Skype.
In Amman, the attic of the hospice has been transformed into Verona with painted cardboard pergolas, pieces of scrap from the streets and a children’s globe to light the stage. The audience includes young men who have lost limbs in the conflict and have been carried up by their carers to see the play. They peer beyond the actors to the shadowy audience looking back at them from Homs. Every moment of connection between the two places is precious. Every time the connection is lost, those of us watching in Amman stay silent, tense with the fear it will not be restored.
For the children in Homs, taking part in rehearsals meant braving snipers and bombs, and enduring severe shortages of food and electricity. In Amman, 12-year-old Romeo fitted his practice around physiotherapy sessions and learning to walk with crutches. Before he arrived in , his home had been destroyed by Assad’s bombs. His mother and sisters were killed; his leg was crushed. When I met him in early February, he could barely stand without crutches. Now, following weeks of intense rehearsals, he uses them in a sword fight, then casts them aside to perform a forward roll that leaves the audience on both sides of the screen cheering.
Then the connection is cut again. The children remain frozen in their makeshift theatre spaces. Minutes pass, and when it is restored, they carry on as if there had been no interruption. This happens again and again, each time a reminder of the terrible reality in Homs and the damage the conflict is doing to psyches and lives.
When the connection returns, the young narrator in Homs – a part written into the text to meet the challenge posed by geographical distance – gets his own laugh and a round of applause. “I swear, if we are not caught by bombs or explosives, and if Juliet is not fired at by a sniper, we will still be here in the next scene,” he says.
There is a hush as a wedding takes place across the divide. Romeo stands in Amman, putting a ring on his own finger. In Homs, Juliet kneels in front of the young Muslim actor playing Friar Lawrence. With a large cardboard crucifix around his neck, he has become Father Frans, named in memory of , the Jesuit priest murdered, aged 75, by the Assad regime in Homs in April 2014. Father Frans remained in Homs as shelling devastated the city; eventually he was the only European left in his enclave. He had worked for the most disadvantaged people, Christian and Muslim, since his arrival in Syria in 1966.
Shakespeare’s tragic conclusion has been changed, to reflect Father Frans’s message and the desire of all present for the conflict to end. Juliet, then Romeo, dash their poison to the ground. Roxanne, playing Juliet’s companion, cries: “Enough killing! Enough blood! Why are you killing us? We want to live like the rest of the world!” Many of the audience are in tears.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was re-imagined by , a Syrian playwright, actor and director most famous for his role in a popular Middle Eastern daytime soap, . (with added scenes from Hamlet), was performed by a cast of more than 100 children in the vast Za’atari refugee camp near the Syrian border last year.
For three months, Bulbul worked each day with children at the Souriyat Without Borders centre in Amman, a hospice for those wounded in . He also worked each day, via Skype, with the group in Homs and their drama teacher, who carried on rehearsals when the connection could not be made. The two groups “met” just two weeks before the performance, going “palm to palm” as Juliet’s line has it, via the screen and getting to know each other as if the technology was not there.
When the play was over, the two groups of actors took their bows turning first to the audience in Syria and then to the audience in Jordan.