Interview met Mokhallad Rasem over Romeo & Julia

That crazy little thing called love! Shakespeare’s Romeo & Julia is inspiratiebron voor een bijzondere ode aan de liefde die de grenzen van leeftijd en cultuur overstijgt, in een regie van Mokhallad Rasem.

In recent seasons you have made three shows about the war in Iraq: Irakese geesten (Iraqi Ghosts), and Caligula. You have now chosen to do Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Does that mean you are taking a break from the theme of war?

For me the war is not over. It is not as simple as that. However, it is true that I have distanced myself from it slightly. I am concentrating on other themes. Though of course you could say that love is also a sort of war, a war of feelings and with feelings. The emotions are the bullets fired at the other person.  It is from that perspective that I want to adapt Shakespeare’s drama.


Is it true to say you really use Romeo and Juliet as a theme, as you did with Camus’ Caligula?

I always start from existing texts and concentrate on a theme. By theme, I mean the essence. I am not going to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet. Everyone knows it anyway. Two rival families and a forbidden relationship. That story provides me with background and inspiration.


What is the essence of Romeo and Juliet for you? 

In world literature Romeo and Juliet stands for the ideal of romantic love between two people.  When love is that strong it overcomes all obstacles. Every culture and every age has its Romeo and Juliet story. You find parallels everywhere. For me it is a very special theme because it is so universal. Every culture has suppression mechanisms as regards love.


You are putting the emphasis on the similarities between the experience of romantic love in different cultures, but there are also big differences, aren’t there?

Absolutely. Romantic love is riddled with cultural codes. For instance, in certain cultures eye contact is very important, whereas in other cultures it is something to avoid. There are differing views on mixed marriages and virginity.


Do those different codes play a role in your production?

Those codes are there of course, but I don’t want to tell a simple story about East and West.


What form will the script take?   

I am not going to start from Shakespeare’s text, but from love poetry. Poetry is palpably present in Arabic culture. An article or a lecture often begins with a quote from a poem as a way of setting the theme. Poetry gives a very different perspective. Poetry is open and can be interpreted in many ways. I want to use love poetry from all over the world. I want to express all the different stages of love – the desire, ecstasy, disillusionment, jealousy, anger, etc. – through poetry. The production will be full of little stories and constant changes in mood and atmosphere. Music will also play an important role. Here, too, I am thinking of a mix of Western and Arabic music.


What is the main difference between, for example, Western and Arabic love poetry?    

Arabic is a very rich language with a huge number of synonyms. I have to use the dictionary to read some poems. Arabic words can also have many different meanings and that lends itself to a complex game of rhetoric. Some poets can only be read and understood by specialists.


Which actors will you be working with?

I want to work with three couples from three different generations: two children, two young adults and an older couple. Love has no age. You can be in love at any time in your life. But every age expresses love in a different way. Those three couples are constantly present. They may even represent three stages in the lives of the same couple. I want to work with dancers as well as actors. I might choose two dancers for the young adult couple. To express love we are pushed to the very borders of language. Sometimes we are unable to express that feeling in words: the turmoil, the misery, the longing. Dancers can express all that with their body. The poetry is physical here. Finally, I also want to work with people from different cultural backgrounds. I love using different languages on stage. So in the three couples I mix ages, cultures, languages and disciplines.


Do you already have ideas for the set?

Let me answer that with a little story.  When I was visiting Iraq last year, my mother mentioned an old wreck of a car not far from our house. The car belonged to a couple that has since died. My mother told me how that car constantly reminded her of the love between those two people. They always sat together in the car, on their way to the park, on their way to a restaurant. That story really inspired me. The starting point of the set is a car. The car is a place of freedom, autonomy, adventure and intimacy. Everything you want as a couple. I picture a car of some kind in the middle of the stage which can be transformed into bedroom, sitting-room, restaurant, etc. etc.; all places which play a role in a couple’s life.


interview by Erwin Jans

Also interesting productions: