Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with its theme of two families forced to bury an ancient grudge after a long feud, is resonant for the creators of a theatre project in Kosovo and Serbia, which is about to start a five-venue regional tour. The production is a ground-breaking collaboration that premiered at the National Theatre of Serbia in Belgrade in April 2015, and then at the National Theatre of Kosovo last May.
It was the first time since the bitter Balkan conflict ended in the late 1990s that a cultural production had been sponsored by the governments of both places, and shown with such prominence. Carefully composed of equal numbers of well-known actors and rising stars from both Serbia and Kosovo, with a script translated into both languages, the production’s final secret ingredient was the choice of play itself. Shakespeare as a negotiator for change and reconciliation was at work here.
Yet, when Serbian actor and director Miki Manojlovic approached Jeton Neziraj in Kosovo with the project, the founder of Pristina-based theatre company Qendra Multimedia was sceptical. He grew up in the 1990s, when Kosovo’s Albanian community faced ethnic cleansing via cultural subjugation by Serb forces. They were prohibited from entering public life or having access to higher education and cultural institutions. The Albanian language was banned in schools and media. When these repressions led to war, thousands died and many more were displaced from their homes.
To Neziraj, the idea of doing Romeo and Juliet seemed too sentimental, too twee. He agreed partly because of the multilingual script, and the promise that actors from each side would perform in both Serbian and Albanian. But eventually he agreed, because, he said, “It’s very ambitious. In terms of money, in terms of politics, in terms of people involved”. Using Shakespeare, he felt, would send a message to the world beyond the Balkans about the potential for cultural exchange in his war-scarred region. “This was a temptation to do something big”, he said.
It’s not the only Shakespeare production that has crossed barriers. In 2005, Bosnian director Haris Pasovic brought together a cast from Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia, then took them on tour across the region. The play was Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Like Manojlovic and Neziraj’s Romeo and Juliet, the production attracted the attention of international media, including The Guardian and The Times; testimony to the UK interest in how people outside the country “do” Shakespeare. The coverage speaks to a sense there that somehow Shakespeare remains an English playwright, even in translation. Perhaps the choice of Shakespeare even influenced the major financial backers for Neziraj and Manojlovic’s project: as both places vie towards accession to the European Union, 130,000 euros (142,000 dollars) came from the EU offices in both Serbia and Kosovo.
Other donors included the Open Society Foundation, the Ministry for Culture in Serbia and Kosovo’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Given that Serbia does not even recognise Kosovo as an independent state, this is progress indeed. It was kept behind the scenes, however: the Serbian edition of the programme did not include the logo of the Republic of Kosovo (instead the liaison office of Kosovo in Belgrade was name checked).
I went to Pristina in February 2015 to meet Neziraj and find out how the production was coming together. From Skopje, the Macedonian capital, I took a six-hour bus ride across the border to Pristina. Neziraj met me at the bus station and showed me around the city while we talked: he warned that evening a demonstration would be taking place in the city’s Mother Teresa Square. Sure enough, thousands of student protesters gathered to demand the release of Albanian prisoners from Serb prisons, and the unification of the town of Mitrovica, which has remained divided between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians since the bitter conflict between the two officially ended in the 1990s.
The Teatri Kombëtar, the National Theatre of Kosovo, sits modestly at the top of a concrete flight of steps on the edge of the square, facing off with the parliament building: a hint at how political a battleground culture is here. The theatre was closed, but the glass tower of the National Assembly was pockmarked with holes, the glass smashed just weeks earlier by rocks and petrol bombs. A crowd of more than 2000 people had clashed violently with police, protesting their government’s climb down over a major mine that lies inside Kosovo’s borders, but which is claimed by Serbia. Their anger was fuelled by anti-Albanian remarks made by ethnic Serb politician Aleksander Jablanovic (then minister of communities and returns, and member of the Kosovo parliament), who called a group of Kosovo Albanians “savages” when they blocked a pilgrimage of Serbs trying to reach one of Kosovo’s Orthodox Christian monasteries over Christmas. It was difficult to believe such a collaborative production could and would take place here.
From Pristina I had to travel back to Skopje to fly to Belgrade, as going over land would have rendered my entry into Serbia illegal. I was allowed into the top-secret rehearsals; then came back to see the premiere as it took place in both cities.
So, was it any good? A bare silver platform in the shape of a cross was built across the dark stage. Montagues and Capulets moved in packs along it, hissing sarcastic greetings in Serbian, in Albanian. The lovers gripped each other; Juliet as much a fighter wielding a knife, as she was an object of desire. Lady Montague soothed her Romeo with Albanian lullabies; the nurse was suitably coarse and knowing.
The action was gripping but foreknowledge of the coming tragedy saturated the audience, and was echoed in the body language of Benvolio, Mercutio and Tybalt as they fought with weapons and words. At the end, I saw audiences in Pristina and Belgrade stand to cheer; the actors stepped off the stage to shake hands with them. Nothing could mar the moment, not even the message, chalked at the foot of those concrete steps outside the theatre: “No Serbian hoofs on the Kosovan stage.”The show went on, despite a power cut which plunged everyone into darkness at the the next day’s matinee. As the plans for a regional tour gather pace, the play might offer a space for audiences to reflect not only on the “ancient grudge” that continues to grieve communities and keep them divided, but also on the potential for reconciliation that collaboration through culture – in this case, through Shakespeare – can offer.