JORDAN

Syrian refugee children stage King Lear

The challenge itself was Shakespearean in scope: one Syrian director decided to retell Shakespeare’s celebrated tragedy King Lear using a cast of 100 Syrian refugee children. The backdrop was not ancient Britain but Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

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Majd, a child living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, in his role as King Lear.

 

The challenge itself was Shakespearean in scope: one Syrian director decided to retell Shakespeare’s celebrated tragedy King Lear using a cast of 100 Syrian refugee children. The backdrop was not ancient Britain but Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

 

The man responsible for such a crazy idea is Nouar Bolbol, a Syrian man of the theatre. As a member of the opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, he was barred from practising his art in his native country in 2012. He decided to flee for Amman, the capital of neighbouring Jordan.

 

In November 2013, Bolbol got the idea of putting on a play with the children in Zaatari, a sprawling refugee camp near the Syrian border, which now holds more than 100,000 Syrians.

 

From the beginning, Bolbol wanted to do a classic play, something entirely removed from the Syrian war. He decided ambitiously to do a piece by Shakespeare and settled on an adapted version of King Lear, one of the Bard’s best-known works.

 

Bolbol began to travel to the refugee camp every day to direct his young actors in preparation for their opening performance.

 

 

Members of the King Lear cast pose in their costumes on performance day.

 

The cast of King Lear in the midst of the play.

"Bringing theatre into a refugee camp, that’s a real revolution!"

Putting on one of Shakespeare’s classics with a group of children in a refugee camp was nothing short of a crazy gamble. But the craziest thing of all is that they exceeded my wildest expectations.

 

I did this because I wanted to show that these children are not worthless and that they aren’t condemned to stay in the fringes of society. I wanted to show that they have something real to contribute.

 

I wanted to prepare the show for the International Theatre Day on March 27. In my opinion, the refugees living in Zaatari have as much right to celebrate this day as anyone anywhere.

 

My original idea was simple. I just wanted to release the children from the mess created by grown-ups, the war that put them on the path to exile and poverty. To me, it doesn’t make any sense when people talk about a “revolution” in Syria… but bringing theatre into a refugee camp, that’s a real revolution!

 

Syrian actor Abdelhakim Alqatifan, who came to see the play, congratulates young Majd, who played the role of King Lear.

 

The story of King Lear is, of course, very political. It’s a story about a quest for power, inheritance and the rivalries between the heirs to the throne [In the story, King Lear, says that he will give the larger part of his kingdom to the daughter who shows him that she loves him the most.]

 

But I wanted to take that out and really focus on the moral dimension of the story. I wanted to create a fable for the children about the importance of sincerity and honesty and the importance of not lying for your own greed or self-interest.

 

Needless to say, the beginning of the project wasn’t easy. We’re talking about children who haven’t been in school for the past three years. This means that many of them have discipline problems as well as problems reading and understanding.

 

The children wanted to participate didn’t necessarily know how to read well enough to learn lines by heart. We had to make this a determining factor especially when we assigned roles.

 

A young actress in her role as one of King Lear’s two daughters.

 

These children are dressed up as knights for the play.

 

It took several weeks to get the children out of their refugee mindset. For the children who had spent their days up until this point just wandering around the camp or getting into trouble, it took time for them to rediscover their innocence and spontaneity.

 

They needed to achieve this before they could really enter into the world of the theatre. They needed to be themselves before they could take on a role.

 

“Many of the children cried when they heard the applause and saw the enthusiasm of the parents.”

As well as learning to act, it was important that this experience was also a source of personal development for the children. Many of them offered to fashion their own costumes or accessories, like their crowns and swords, and I let them do it. I wanted them to know that from the moment that they really wanted to do or make something, that thing became possible.

 

The presentation of the play was incredibly moving. Many of the children cried when they heard the applause and saw the parents’ enthusiasm. They really needed this recognition from the adults, they needed to hear that their parents were proud of them.

 

As for the parents, they were happy to see their children become normal again, to blossom despite the difficult context. They asked me to continue. I definitely plan on it. Molière will be the next author to come to Zaatari.