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Stage is set for humanising a far-off conflict

Unlike Romeo and Juliet, which needs no introduction, 66 Minutes is a play for outsiders, a crash course in a seemingly far away conflict.

I'm a sucker for a love story, and in the western world there is no story more famous than Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. But what happens when 16th century Italian tragedy is transplanted to modern-day Iraq? The result is Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, a production of the Iraqi Theatre Company, a modern retelling in colloquial Arabic set across the nine years of civil war.

Brothers Montague and Capulet - written as sons of two different Shia and Sunni mothers - feud over who will inherit their father's pearl-diving ship. It's not hard to read this as a metaphor for Iraq. Their children Romeo and Juliet fell in love before the war, but the family conflict keeps them apart. Outside forces in the shape of Count Paris, thinly disguised as Al Qaeda, foment conflict.

Paris encourages Juliet's brother towards extremism, insists on being betrothed to Juliet despite her rejection of him, and ultimately brings the lovers to a gruesome end through a suicide bombing rather than the tale's famous ending of mistaken suicide.

Despite veering from the Bard's well-known narrative, this is still very much a traditional play, told through a traditional format. But what was different - what I found exciting when watching the performance - was the audience.

Despite London's multicultural population, getting minorities to attend the theatre is a challenge for the arts world. Yet the audience for this play was almost entirely Arab or Muslim. Older couples, some with creases in their faces, lit up at seeing their world on stage as they sat next to achingly hip women in fashionable headscarves.

As the cadence of the play rose and fell, I could see the quiet trickle of tears on their faces, hear their raucous laughter at the telling of folk tales, and their roar of approval as Paris' Al Qaeda character is ignominiously rejected. There, in front of their eyes, were their lives, their homes, their conflict and emotions.

This is the power of arts in making sense of tragedy and devastation, and offering optimism, even love, as alternatives. News reports and documentaries can never achieve this because they are about facts and politics. What people need to make sense of what is happening is humanity and emotion.

Another play I recently saw, also part of the London International Festival of Theatre, evoked similar sentiment is a very different way. 66 Minutes in Damascus performs to an audience of just eight people. These participants are cast as tourists to the Syrian capital, kidnapped by the secret police and taken to a prison in an unknown location. Bags placed over our heads, we were marched through a "prison" until we came to a senior official who asked us why we came to Damascus.

"What is Syria to you. A play?"

During this "immersive theatre" experience the audience is introduced to characters who share their own experiences, deepening viewers' understanding of conflict.

Unlike Romeo and Juliet, which needs no introduction, 66 Minutes is a play for outsiders, a crash course in a seemingly far away conflict. But despite the different approaches each were all-consuming stories in their own right.

It has become hard to contextualise the rapid pace of change in the Middle East. Events are unfolding at such a furious pace that impacts at a personal human level are difficult to explain.

Artistic interpretations allow us to connect individual experience with wider changes, and understand what they mean for real people. Even in the midst of tragedies, the stage offers powerful comfort.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk

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