These five images (three photographs and two video stills) are of the performance of a Syrian production, Romeo and Juliet Separated by War, directed by exiled actor Nawar Bulbul in March 2015. The Juliet of Bulbul’s play is separated from her Romeo; she is trapped in a Syrian conflict zone, cut off from her extended family and without access to relief efforts.
The all-teenage cast was made up of two groups located in neighbouring countries. In Amman, Jordan, Ibrahim (playing Romeo) and his fellow actors are Syrian refugees in a hospital for those recovering from war related injuries (Ibrahim nearly lost his leg in the regime shelling of Damascus in 2014). In Homs, Syria, the girl playing Juliet and her fellow actors (not named, for their safety) were chosen from those who remained in the city under siege. The two groups, who had never met in person, were united via Skype for their performance.
The production blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, with Shakespeare’s tragedy serving as a lens through which to explore some of the difficult and painful emotions arising from the real-life experience of these actors and their Syrian audience. The pain of Romeo and Juliet’s separation echoes the pain of those separated from their homeland and from their families and loved ones in the war-torn region. The crutches (often their own) that the boys use as swords, turn the choreographed stage-violence of the play into a chilling comment on the very real violence and harm that war has done to these children. The frequent interruptions to the Skype feed, endured patiently by the audience and cast, serve as a constant reminder of the precariousness of the situation in Syria, the narrator in Homs quipping: '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'. The gallows humour in these words is underscored by the masks worn by the Homs actors to try to protect their identities from the watchful Assad regime, perhaps particularly poignant in the case of Friar Lawrence, renamed Friar Frans in memory of Father Frans van der Lugt, the Jesuit priest murdered in Homs by the Assad regime in 2014.
Bulbul and his cast gave their play a new ending that brought many in the hospital audience to tears. Instead of Romeo and Juliet committing suicide, the Syrian pair both throw their bottles of poison to the ground in defiance of death. Juliet’s companion cries out the words: 'Enough killing! Enough blood! Why are you killing us? We want to live like the rest of the world!'
Bulbul has said of the production: 'We wanted, through this unique work, to draw attention to the areas under siege by the regime in Syria after the failure of humanitarian organisations to send food, water and medicine there. We also wanted to send a message to the world that the besieged people are not terrorists but children threatened by shelling, death and destruction.' Bulbul has also said he rewrote the play to increase the emphasis on the theme of love: 'In Romeo and Juliet we are screaming: “Let’s love each other again, let’s lessen the gruesomeness, let’s lessen the ugliness of this world."'