When William Shakespeare wrote about the warring households in “Romeo and Juliet,” he wasn’t thinking about Jews and Arabs. Yet in Israel, more than 400 years later, his classic tale of feuds and betrayal served as a focal point of harmony for mixed audiences of Jewish, Muslim and Christian students.
For Judy Kleinman, the producer of the British theater troupe TNT Britain’s production of Romeo and Juliet in Israel, the main goal was to expose kids to Shakespeare. The widely beloved play tells the story of Romeo and Juliet, teenage members of the Montague and Capulet families, respectively, whose love is forbidden because of a long-held enmity between their families. TNT presented the play in six Israeli cities throughout February and March.
“This was not designed as a coexistence project,” Kleinman said. “This brought kids together organically and naturally. We advertised Romeo and Juliet for students. We did not go out and speak at Arab schools or religious schools. I think that’s more impressive than designing a coexistence project — the fact that this theater brought together these kids naturally, not artificially.”
In Tel Aviv, religious Muslim and Jewish girls from Kfar Kanna and Kiryat Shmona, as well as students from the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, a secular school in Givatayim, enjoyed the performance. In Jerusalem, students from Schmidt’s Girls College, which mainly serves Muslim and Christian students from East Jerusalem and the West Bank, sat in an audience of mainly Jewish attendees.
As the audience lists filled out, Kleinman and the TNT members began to realize what they had — mixed audiences they hoped would learn from Shakespeare’s centuries-old tale.
“It couldn’t be more relevant, could it?” said Darius McStay, who played Romeo’s cousin Benvolio, Juliet’s father Lord Capulet and several other roles. “It’s a radical play back then, and it’s a radical play still.”
Paul Stebbings, the production’s director, told students at the beginning of the Tel Aviv matinee that he hoped they would walk away with lessons from the play. He pointed to the ultimately “meaningless” conflict between the two families in the play that ended up causing their children’s deaths.
“That’s the great thing about this play,” Stebbings said. “It’s not just the tragedy about two people who kill themselves. It’s about how their death causes a reconciliation. We forget that in the romance.… I can only say that (the audience) should be able to see that conflict is not as important as the personal relations between people.”
Projects like this are important because they get Jewish and Arab students in a room together with a shared activity, said Dadi Komem, director of education at the Abraham Fund, which tries to initiate policy changes through coexistence programs and whose eventual goal is to have coexistence efforts spearheaded by the state rather than by nongovernmental organizations.
“That makes them share the experience and feel the similarities and the mutual joy, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “When the play has to do with the problems they’re going through and the challenges they’re trying to deal with, that’s even better.”
The Abraham Fund initiates programs that bring students and teachers from Arab and Jewish schools together, teaching each group the culture and language of the other.
“It’s dealing with fear and stereotypes, trying to get to know each other,” Komem said. “It’s a process of doing things together and trying to create a shared living within the segregated school systems. When you have segregated school systems, you have to deal with it, or otherwise when those children grow up, they won’t meet until they’re in their 20s. And then it’s too late to take away those fears and stereotypes.”
He added that the most successful coexistence projects are carried out over time rather than taking place only once. Next January, the troupe will return with productions of Hamlet, and students are already asking if they’ll be able to go.
Right now, Stebbings and American Drama Group Europe are working on a dramatization of “The Wave,” a novel based on a true story of a California history teacher’s lesson about the Holocaust and fascism that ended up overtaking an entire school in the 1960s. The troupe plans to formally launch the play in January, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and in the meantime, it has performed for audiences in Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands.
In November of this year, Stebbings and Kleinman hope to bring the production to Israel, again targeting mixed Jewish and Arab audiences. What’s more, they want to follow the play with Skype or webinar sessions between Israelis and students in Germany and other European countries.
The book, “The Wave,” is on Israel’s required reading list for high school students.
“If we could get Israeli and German kids talking about the themes of this and the dangers of fascism, it would be extraordinary,” Kleinman said.
They hope the play will speak to students in the same way the star-crossed lovers’ tragedy did.
Moriya Boneh, 16, attended the production in Tel Aviv with about 20 other religious Jewish girls, having driven more than two hours from the northern town of Kiryat Shmona to see the play. As they waited for it to begin, Boneh whispered with her friends. They were dressed conservatively but retained individual touches like sparkly stockings.
Boneh spoke candidly about her love of writing, painting, acting, reading science fiction and fantasy, and watching “Doctor Who” and “Game of Thrones.” Although she doesn’t have a boyfriend, she’s allowed to touch boys, she joked.
She plans to be an actress, although she’s not yet been in a play — “I wish,” she laughed. “Someday. I have big dreams.”
Seeing “Romeo and Juliet” was the perfect opportunity to experience live theater. The fact that she was watching the play with Muslim and Christian students, for her, wasn’t a big deal.
“I hate discrimination,” she said. “My best friend is gay. I don’t think we’re different because we are Jewish and they’re Christians.”
“But,” she added, “I’m different. Not everyone would be happy about it.”
Several rows back, Hoda Abzak and Dania Sagas, both 14-year-old Circassian Muslim students from Kfar Kanna, giggled over the actors’ accents. They had to travel more than an hour to get to Tel Aviv — and their group got lost on the way — but they were excited their school had given them the chance to see the play.
As with Boneh, they liked the idea that they were watching the play with students of other religions.
“I don’t have any Jewish friends, but I’m still young,” Abzak said. “Maybe when I’m in university, I’ll have some.”
Kleinman said she doesn’t know, necessarily, that the students walked away from the performance applying the play’s lessons to Israeli-Arab conflicts. But many of them did leave with a better understanding of Shakespeare — and, experienced, whether they realize it or not, an important moment from their place as audience members.
After the cast members took their bow in Tel Aviv, eager students — Jewish girls and Muslim boys, side by side — leaped on stage to pose for photos with the actors.
“The best scene of that performance was after the closing — having all these students, from religious schools and secular, all together, taking pictures with the actors,” Kleinman said. “That was just amazing. We’re talking about a 16th-century playwright bringing all these kids together.”
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