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
“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
“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
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
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
“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
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?”