Borrowing Cupid’s wings: Romeo and Juliet helps heal the scars of Kosovo war

More than 15 years after the bitter conflict, a staging of Shakespeare’s tragedy brings Kosovans and Serbians together to foster reconciliation

There are few more poignant places to stage a play about “star-crossed lovers” than in former Yugoslavia, where a rehearsal for a gritty production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is under way in Belgrade’s trendy but rundown port area of Savamala.

With a cast chosen to reflect the deep divisions that remain in this part of the Balkans, Romeo and the Montagues will be played by Kosovan Albanians while Juliet and the Capulets will be played by Serbians. The production is 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 opens on Sunday at the Serbian National Theatre in Belgrade, before moving to the National Theatre of Kosovo in Pristina next month.

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.

Ukaj, 34, was a student in Pristina during the war and experienced the bombings first-hand, though he now lives in Sarajevo. “I started to lose faith that this story was ever going to end, so it was important for me that we start something,” he said.

The play is a joint production by two theatre organisations, Belgrade-based Radionica Integracije and Pristina-based Qendra Multimedia, and is partly aimed at showing that Serbians and Kosovans can engage and work together, at least on stage.

“We are doing a play and this process together, that is our statement,” said Miki Manojlović, the director. “It is much more profound than saying: ‘I think this’. Do something together. If we merely talk about reconciliation it is just words.”

The play will be performed in both Serbian and Albanian, depending on which character is talking, with scenes involving both families interplaying the language. No subtitles will be offered to theatregoers.

“There are people in Belgrade who don’t speak Albanian but they will understand,” said Manojlović. “It is easy to understand why somebody loves somebody, or someone hates someone.”

This is not the first attempt to use cultural events to bridge the gap between the countries. Polip, a literary festival in Pristina, first held in 2010, has Serbian writers among those regularly invited to participate.

Co-founder Saša Ilić, a Serb, says he set up Polip “because I understood there was no cooperation between Pristina and Belgrade in a cultural sense and someone had to start that.”

He was also involved in two books published in 2011: From Belgrade with Love, an anthology of Serbian literature translated into Albanian and published in Pristina, and From Pristina with Love, a volume of Kosovan literature published in Serbian in Belgrade.

“The goal is that one day they might become part of the school curriculums,” he said.

“It is like throwing a stone in the sea, with ripples and ripples,” said Borka Pavićević, the director of the Centre for Cultural Decontamination in Belgrade, discussing the importance of the theatre and arts in rapprochement. The centre has put on more than 5,000 events since its founding in January 1995, at the height of the Bosnian war, many related to addressing or opening dialogue around unresolved regional issues.

“We have people who get very angry about what we do here, but we also have people who support us and say they agree with what we are doing,” she said. “This new Romeo and Juliet will also mean a lot as it will create discussions.”

Ukaj is cautious about how the play will be received locally: “Right now I just want to make the best production possible of Romeo and Juliet. How the reactions will be, I don’t know.”

Adding poignancy to this production is the fact that many of the actors have first-hand experience of the impact of deep divisions between “feuding families”.

Friar Lawrence is being played by Uliks Fehmiu, a 46-year-old actor based in New York. Fehmiu is the son of ethnic Albanian actor Bekim Fehmiu and Serbian actor Branka Petrić. In 1987 Bekim Fehmiu walked off stage in the middle of a performance in protest at the vitriolic speeches of Slobodan Milošević, the Serb leader later tried for war crimes. Fehmiu never acted or appeared in a public role again, and killed himself in 2010.

“My father suffered through this period terribly,” said Fehmiu. “Hatred is something that is so dangerous and so contagious. I went through a period of looking at myself and my generation as victims. This seeing yourself as a victim doesn’t move you forward.”

He added: “What is happening here shouldn’t be an exception, it should be a normal mainstream thing. This makes sense. You have to believe, at least a bit, that this seed we are planting will continue to grow.”

The Romeo and Juliet the ensemble has created is set in modern-day Verona but clearly channels some of the feelings that come from living in the region.

“I really want to tell something about hatred, about love, about what kind of communication we can make,” says Anita Mančić, a Serbian playing the part of the Nurse.

“If I live with you, I must talk to you,” she added. “We exist in one place, why are we not talking with each other? That is the problem. We are living in the past.”

But there are signs that relations between Serbia and Kosovo are starting to thaw. On 19 April 2013, Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement in Brussels in an attempt to normalise relations. Last week, Serbia’s foreign affairs minister, Ivica Dačić, attended a conference in Pristina, the first official visit to the city by a leading Serbian politician since the end of the conflict.

“Until 2008 there was absolutely no support from governments; they actually tried to block things like this,” said Neziraj. “This was really the case until last year. The fact that the governments are now communicating and meeting has an impact on society. People think: ‘Okay, if our ministers are meeting why can’t artists meet?’”

In fact, according to those involved this will be the first theatre production that has been supported by both governments, and there are already plans to take it beyond Belgrade and Pristina to perform it elsewhere in the region.

“It isn’t easy to build a bridge,” said Manojlović. “But it is much easier for us – we are not making policy, but art. But we are fragile: some politician can come in and say goodbye, and this bridge no longer exists. Can you see how courageous this step is, and how right?”


Kit Gillet in Belgrade

The GuardianTramp

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