Images: Top, Michael Shewchuk as Wahab and Casey Austin as Nawal in Scorched; Naomi Simpson as Sawda and Casey Austin as Nawal in Scorched; Samantha Richards as Juliet and Matthew Coulson as Romeo in the Phoenix Theatre production at the University of Victoria; Janick Hebert, Sarah Orenstein and Nicola Lipman in the Tarragon Theatre [Toronto]production of Scorched.
1) You saw 2 new shows last week that were written four hundred years and worlds apart. But you saw some interesting connections between the two plays...what can you tell us about them?
Scorched is a Canadian play set in both Montreal and the unnamed Middle East homeland of immigrants, mother Nawal and her twin children Simon and Janine. While the country is never named, it is a country that has been wracked by civil war in a manner sadly familiar to the playwright whose family survived the 16 year long Lebanese civil war from 1975-1990. The play begins after Nawal’s death and the reading of her will by an unassuming notary who tells the twins that their mother has left them with a mission: To find their long-lost father and a brother they never knew they had. The play then takes us on an epic journey through Nawal’s life and is interwoven with the searching by Simon and Janine for the long-buried truth.
Now, no one would immediately leap to an obvious connection between this recent play and one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, Romeo and Juliet. While both plays present plenty of sadness, violence and loss brought about by historical enmities, this underlying theme is brought all the more to the fore by Romeo and Juliet director Brian Richmond’s decision to relocate the play from Verona, Italy to the West Bank of Israel. In this way, the feuding families of the Montagues and Capulets become a Jewish family living in inexorable tension with a Muslim family, kept apart by the ineffective UN Peacekeeping forces. In a bid to make the play timely and relevant, Richmond has a Jewish Romeo fall in love with an Arab Juliet. In this way, the ever-present news item of tension and outbreaks of violence and war in the Middle East is seen in both of these very different shows.
2) So let's begin with the Phoenix Theatre at UVic's production of Romeo and Juliet. What is working well in the production?
Richmond likes to take on large-scale productions and always manages to present a polished and smooth-running piece of theatre. The design elements of set of sand and effective lighting and costumes all look good, although in the sound department there is far too much mood music from frequent Richmond collaborator John Mills-Cockell (who needs to be reminded that film and theatre are not the same dramatic art forms). The two dozen or so students and former students in this production are working well together and make optimal use of the thrust stage in the Chief Dan George Theatre, employing no fewer than eight different entrance and exit locations. The company speaks Shakespeare’s text with clarity, if somewhat lacking in lyricism. And there is lots of physicality in the show, with knife fights, gunplay, exotic dancing and an aerial version of the famous balcony scene. I like the work of a number of student actors in the show, especially the work from senior acting students Matthew Coulson as Romeo, whose work improves in emotional depth over the course of the show, Jay Mitchell as Lord Capulet, Ashley Caron as Lady Capulet and Emily Smith as the Nurse. Richmond likes cross-gender casting and this pays off in the strong work from Natasha Salway as Benvolio. Samantha Richards, one of two alternating Juliets, plays the young girl’s innocence and free-fall into first love very well, although she struggles to find the maturity needed in the latter part of the play. Cam Culham offers a nice turn as Friar Laurence as do Jeff Leard as Mercutio and James Roney as Tybalt. So there is plenty to admire in the show.
3) And given your opening comments, what was your response to director Brian Richmond's decision to locate the play in the occupied territories of Israel? Does a Jewish Romeo and Arab Juliet add anything new to our understanding of the play?
This is where the production lost me, I’m afraid. I was quite open to this interpretation, but also sensitive to how it would be presented. I am not of Arab extraction, nor am I a Muslim, but I still found the portrayal of drunken Arab Capulets in the party scene difficult to accept. And when the Jewish Romeo and supposedly Muslim (although blond, blue-eyed and curly-haired) Juliet ask the Christian Friar Laurence to marry them, I just became deeply confused. Are the Capulets Arab Christians? If so, why does Tybalt have the Islamic star and crescent moon symbol tattooed on his arm and why do his comrades look like stereotypical Arab terrorists/freedom fighters? My other main concern has less to do with the riskiness of this ‘clash of civilizations’ version and more to do with the lack of logic in this decision. In Shakespeare’s original play, the feuding families are equally upper class; moved to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, that fundamental equality between the Montagues and Capulets is completely lost. Showing us an apparently wealthy Arab Capulet family in that setting is absurd and patently untrue. There are many very wealthy Arabs in the Middle East, but they do not live in the Palestinian territories. And in those territories, there is absolutely no equality between the Israeli armed forces and settlers and the relatively impoverished Palestinian people who are fighting for their homeland. To show us a version of this deeply troubled part of the world in such a highly simplified, even simplistic way, is to not just confuse an audience, but to also make a political statement that is completely false.
4) Let's move to Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad's play Scorched, which I hear has been seen in over 100 productions worldwide. What is its great appeal?
Mouawad is a fine writer and storyteller and displays these skills many times over throughout the course of this three-hour epic play. There is a lot of text in the play, and even more action, so it is not too much of a stretch to call the play Shakespearean in its scope and ambition. But it is even closer to a Greek tragedy in its structure as a mystery (similar to Oedipus Rex by Sophocles) with an incredibly powerful, even devastating climax. When Nawal’s orphaned twins finally discover the truth of their mother’s past and the reason why it drove her into silence for the last five years of her life, it is unbelievably hard to take, but also dramatically feels deeply right and true. This is one of the finest new plays I have seen in some time and I am grateful to director Clayton Jevne for taking it on and bringing it to Victoria. The show is not perfect, it could use a few more actors to reduce the endless doubling, and it is a bare bones production that could use some of the arts funding that the BC government is snatching back from our artists to create a more visually arresting show. But there is some fine work from Casey Austin in the central role of Nawal, a role that has been played by three actresses in other productions that she tackles all by herself….a remarkable achievement. Other Inconnu regulars Naomi Simpson, Michael Shewchuk, Paddy Crawford and Jason Stevens all do nice work here as well. This is not a show for the faint of heart, but anyone who cares about good theatre should not miss it.
5) Any final thoughts on these two productions?
I love theatre that provokes its audience, that wakes us up rather than puts us to sleep. Both of these shows this week offer provocation but of two very different kinds. Whereas Scorched provokes us to think more about the endless cycles of violent retribution that can cause societies to implode, the Middle Eastern version of Romeo and Juliet at UVic presents a mostly mixed-messages vision of this troubled region that causes more confusion and consternation than enlightenment.