Saturday 23 April marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The Bard’s work has long been used to tackle difficult or controversial issues; issues that most often only received an audience due to the cloak of his respectability.
The bard’s plays have been used to circumvent censorship and tackle difficult issues around the world; from Bollywood adaptions to Othello in apartheid-era South Africa and a ground-breaking last year’s performance of Romeo and Juliet between Kosovan and Serbian theatres, along with reports on theatre upsetting people in the USA.
There are few more poignant places to stage a play about “star-crossed lovers” than in former Yugoslavia, where a gritty play of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was staged last year in Belgrade, Serbia.
With a cast chosen to reflect the deep divisions that remain in this part of the Balkans, Romeo and the Montagues were played by Kosovan Albanians while Juliet and the Capulets were played by Serbians. The production was seen as a chance to push forward dialogue and reconciliation in the region.
“I think this is going to mark the end of the Serbia-Kosovo conflict, symbolically,” said Jeton Neziraj, a Kosovan playwright and one of the play’s co-producers. The play opened at the Serbian National Theatre in Belgrade in April 2015, before moving to the National Theatre of Kosovo in Pristina next month.
The play was performed in both Serbian and Albanian, depending on which character is talking, with scenes involving both families interplaying the language. No subtitles were offered to theatregoers.
After years of bloodshed and tension, Kosovo declared itself independent from Serbia in 2008. Although the Kosovo war ended in 1999, animosity and political difficulties remain, with Serbia refusing to recognise Kosovo and flashpoints between the two countries continuing.
“The gap between these two nations is deep,” said Alban Ukaj, the Kosovan Albanian actor playing Romeo, sitting in a dressing room one morning before rehearsals began.