A modern tale of woe

'For never was there a story of more woe than that of Juliet and her Romeo." Except for the redo.

‘For never was there a story of more woe than that of Juliet and her Romeo.”

Except for the redo.

In one version of the centuries-old classic performed in Mozambique this summer, Romeo had AIDS and infected his love the night of their marriage.

Using a combination of English, Portuguese and dance, about 30 Canadian and Mozambicans performed a modernized version of Romeo and Juliet in a country where HIV/AIDS infects 25 per cent of the population.

Shakespeare Link Canada, a theatre company that adapts traditional Shakespearean texts, teamed up with a dance company in Mozambique, Companhia de Canto e Danca Montes Namuli, to recast the classic to make it relevant to Mozambicans.

The southeast African country, colonized by the Portuguese in 1505 and finally gaining independence in 1975, is one of the poorest countries in the world.

“Their culture is completely different,” said Yukon actress Emily Farrell, who traveled to the country in August with seven other Humber College theatre students.

“In some ways it was exactly what I expected it to be, and then there were a lot of things that differed.”

Getting used to the idea that polygamy is widely practiced in Mozambique, was one example, she said.

Polygamy, practiced not only by men, but women as well – although less frequently – is one reason the spread of HIV/AIDS has been so rapid in the country.

Men will take as many wives or girlfriends as they wish. Women, however, tend to be more calculating about the partners they collect.

“Women do it with strategy,” said Farrell.

“They’ll say, ‘This man isn’t looking after me and my kids, so I’ll look for another man to take care of me and have a child with him.’”

But people in the province of Zambezia Farrell visited weren’t always upfront about all their partners. Men would often lie about the fact they had wives, girlfriends or children, said Farrell.

“They would just say ‘no’ (when we asked). They’d lie through their teeth to us,” she said.

Conversations about sex and AIDS were also uncommon. The stigma associated with the disease often makes people secretive about HIV/AIDS.

But the increasing risk of infection is forcing the population of Mozambique to pry open a subject that has long been kept in the dark.

When Farrell arrived in Quelimane, the largest city of Zambezia, she noticed billboards along the road telling men it was their responsibility to get tested for HIV/AIDS.

The message was out there, but it didn’t necessarily mean that men were getting tested, she said.

“The same is true here in Canada. But at least if you test positive here you have a better chance of being medically supported.”

“People in Mozambique can’t afford the $3 a day cost to deal with the disease.”

The HIV/AIDS message also crept up in some unexpected places. Farrell recounts visiting a program for young girls that was similar to Brownies in Canada.

But rather than getting badges after learning how to sew or cook, the girls, some as young as nine, were learning about HIV and AIDS.

The girls were being taught how to say ‘no’ to sex and what their rights were, said Farrell.

“It was liberating they were shedding light on the subject, but it was such a wake-up call. The girls were having fun, but were forced to grow up really fast.

The effects of the virus were everywhere in Mozambique, she noted.

For three days, some of the dancers in the Montes Namuli company didn’t show up for practice because a friend had passed away, said Farrell.

“They didn’t say how they died, but we were pretty sure it was from AIDS,” she said.

In 2005, Shakespeare Link Canada travelled to Quelimane for the first time and started working with the dance company on HIV/AIDS awareness.

Although the dancers were keen to teach others about the importance of getting tested, many of the dancers at that time had never been tested themselves.

“It was a point of contention. The theatre company told them, ‘You can’t preach until you get tested too,’” said Farrell who got involved with Shakespeare Link the following year.

When they finally did get tested, some tests came out negative. But there were a few people who tested positive and many that didn’t want to share their results, Farrell said.

Over the last couple years, attitudes have changed amongst people in the company, she added.

After two and half weeks of rewriting and practicing the play this August, the group staged two separate shows, both well-received by the community, she said.

Each show attracted about 150 people and featured interchanging characters for the roles of Romeo and Juliet.

On the first night Romeo was played by a Canadian actor and Juliet, a Mozambican. The following night audiences saw the reverse; Romeo was Mozambican and Juliet was Canadian.

“The purpose was to symbolize equality – that all people are equally affected by AIDS,” said Farrell.

Farrell considers the trip a success and would like to return to Mozambique to continue the work she started there, she said.

Already some of the dancers from the Montes Namuli Company have moved to Canada to improve their dance skills in Toronto.

And there are others who are still awaiting responses about work visas.

In Canada, unlike in Mozambique, dancers can make a job of their art so the attraction to the country isn’t that surprising.

“There is literally no money for dancers in Mozambique … so Canada seems like the promised land by comparison,” she said.

But even in Canada, the reality of AIDS is one that can’t be outrun.

Contact Vivian Belik at