When I first read the title Behind Barbed Wire, Shakespeare Inspires a Cast of Young Syrians, I was reminded of the fact that children are resilient. From the slums of India to the ghettos of inner city America, children are called upon and often do rise above every-day horrors. Visions of World War II concentration camp schools popped into my head. In Europe, the children’s faces were Jewish; in the United States, Japanese. Today there are over 60,000 children living in camp Zaatari in Jordan. They are not being held against their will, but crowded conditions, short food and medical supplies and the insecurity not knowing if or when they may return home, create an environment fraught with insecurity and danger.
Nawar Bulbul a popular Syrian actor in self-imposed exile, went to the Zaatari camp in Jordan to help distribute supplies. While there, he was inspired to bring Shakespeare to the children of the camp and to the adults through the children. Of all of the Bard’s plays, Bulbul chose King Lear to provide an opportunity for all confined to experience anxiety, fear, longing, acceptance and joy. He wanted people to have the opportunity to cry and laugh together.
Shakespeare’ plays are generally classified as comedies or tragedies. Nevertheless, his comedies always contain a bit of humor – the gate keeper in Macbeth and Polonius in Hamlet. Bulbul added a chorus that ridiculed the false displays of affection for their father from the deceiving daughters. The chorus reacted strongly to any other pretext situation. The author added a clown (jester) who illuminated irony.
Under the blazing sun, the children in paper crowns and make-shift costumes preformed for an audience of their families who were seated on the ground around them. The audience whopped and cheered when the false daughters were unmasked for who they were.
At the end of the performance, the audience clapped for the young actors. Some of the girls cried. For a brief moment in a year or more of surviving under harsh conditions, a group of some family, a few friends, but mostly strangers, rewarded their efforts with applause and praise.
Shakespeare continues to transend time, distance and cultures.