Olivia Kumar

The tragedy of star-crossed lovers has been re-interpreted and performed countless times and is one of the most established works of the White-British canon. So how do you make Shakespeare your own? Zara Ramtohul-Akbur (Juliet) hopes to make her character “someone recognizable”, drawing on all sorts of different influences, “from my mum, to my friends, to very random characters off Netflix, to me.” Danny Baalbaki (Romeo) also aims to perform in a way that is relatable and real, connecting with this play very personally. “This particular production is special however as it will be my last play in Cambridge and will address issues of conflict and love in a way that is very close to my identity and upbringing in East London.” For Zara and Danny, the characters are dealing with the universal experience of growing up. It’s not hard for the story to resonate with their own memories and for the play to become personal. Romeo x Juliet is youth culture in all its excitement and angst, its tensions and its energy. With the stage reflecting memories of growing up in the city, with its sounds, lights, and music scenes, this BME production aims to make the Shakespeare classic accessible and relevant to the multicultural here-and-now.

"BME Shakespeare productions can show that there is more to minority experiences than the stereotypical images often imposed on their cultures"

But aren’t you worried about those people who disapprove of BME theatre productions, those who might dismiss this play as insular, ineffective quota-filling? Shows like this, which make us reconsider our environment and celebrate the creative talent of diversity, do not always receive support from everyone in Cambridge. One might accuse the show of further ghettoizing or alienating ethnic minorities. Hypermasculine, violent gangs being associated with UK rap, grime, and urban music? A Muslim Juliet forced into an arranged marriage by her strict, repressive family? There are those who would seek to manipulate and spin these images into negative stereotypes and harmful narratives.

Such prejudices are what this show intends to challenge and combat. BME Shakespeare productions can show that there is more to minority experiences than the stereotypical images often imposed on their cultures. And this translates so well to the three-dimensional characters that Shakespeare created. Romeo and Juliet may be the protagonists, but there should not be straightforward heroes or villains; even notoriously antagonistic characters, such as Tybalt or the Montague and Capulet parents, standing in the way of their children’s love, themselves come from their own position of love. Shakespeare’s characters and stories are so much more complex, and this re-interpretation can go well beyond making a straightforward statement about arranged marriages, gender roles, or gang violence.

A multicultural youth breathes new life into the traditional British canon. Celebrating diversity does not have to be mutually exclusive with taking on British cultural tradition. Shakespeare was probably not aware of the term ‘multiculturalism’, but he lived in a multicultural London and was well aware of the diverse groups of people in the cosmopolitan bustle who came to see his shows. From European merchants and tradesmen to refugees fleeing religious and political persecution, London’s streets had always been familiar with diversity and difference. And also, with social division and urban unrest. I am not suggesting here that Shakespeare actively aimed to write about reconciling differences in multicultural life, but it is hard to deny that minority experiences mattered in his world. To re-interpret a classic Shakespeare play by imbuing it with a multicultural perspective is not to anachronistically force an egalitarian agenda onto the British canon. Shakespeare was a popular entertainer who wrote for everyone. His work today should belong to everyone.


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This is a question of access. Look at the student theatre community and look at reports on diversity at the university itself, and tell me that racial and social inequality does not exist or matter. Do you think it’s easy to break into a role in theatre with few previous opportunities or role models for BME students? For some of the cast, this is their first time performing in Cambridge. “When I discovered Cambridge’s incredibly rich and dynamic student theatre scene, I knew I wanted to become part of it,” says Yolanda Lam (who will play Montague and Peter). But it can be daunting to break into scene with so many talented performers, many of whom have plenty of drama experience before coming to uni. Seth Daood (Lord Capulet) says that he had been nervous about going for auditions, and this show marks his acting debut. “However, being a part of this BME production has really helped me start to get into the world of theatre in Cambridge”. Many actors who had gotten into theatre through previous BME Shakespeare productions, such as Macbeth or Twelfth Night, have gone on to do more work in Cambridge theatre. Regardless of the critiques against ‘quota-filling’ in the wider debate about positive discrimination, when it comes to Cambridge student theatre, putting on BME plays does yield positive results. These productions bring hope and encouragement for future shows and performers. Without that first opportunity for entry into the world of theatre, so much potential for creative talent would never be fulfilled. It’s a shame that such wonderful performers of ethnic minority backgrounds, who could participate more in the Cambridge theatre scene, might have felt on some level that they were not welcome on the stage. And what better way to prove that BME performers can own the stage than this production, Romeo x Juliet, which will further claim a cultural space of representation for ethnic minorities’ representation and celebrate diverse talent.

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