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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: October ::
Julius Caesar in Oregon
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.2143  Monday, 28 October 2002

From:           Mike Jensen <
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Date:           Sunday, 27 Oct 2002 07:19:37 -0800
Subject:        Julius Caesar in Oregon

A well meaning member of this list wrote:

>A serious artist may, I think, play for the people without loss of
>integrity.  However, when leading institutions such as the Oregon
>Shakespeare Festival pluck one of his texts off the shelf and give it
>the modern treatment, an anything-goes production, a Shakespeare For
>Today, that seems to veer toward disrespect and constitutes a definite
>violation of what I understand British copyright law now calls the
>artist's moral rights to his work, and I want to protest.
>
>In contrast to the Ashland Julius Caesar, with its wrecked-auto
>sculptures and strobe lights (for the Philippi battle scene) and
>obnoxious Brechtian ditty ("The noble Duke of York/he had ten thousand
>men..."), I've thought that I might be happier to see some talented
>voices do a straight-forward dramatic reading--without costumes or sets
>or production values.  Or, I suppose, without interpretation, for much
>interpretation today *is* in the staging, not in the delivery of lines.
>
>Is this too conservative a wish, some reactionary desire to wall off
>public domain literature, reinstall Shakespeare in the pantheon?  Or
>have we been going through a period of over-interpretation and poor use
>of Shakespeare, our non-contemporary?

I saw this production yesterday, and while I sympathize with these
feelings, and in general think they are accurate, these comments fail to
take seriously what is in many ways a fine production.  It is fair to
protest if one does not like such a modern approach, but one should also
give these artists their due.

First let's dispose of the strobe light.  There wasn't one when I saw
it, though actors did their fighting in slow motion, which is often used
in conjunction with a strobe effect on stage.

Director Laird Williamson made it clear that he equates Caesar with
George W. in his published comments. "The chief executive of this
government... now faces the need to dispatch military units to the
far-flung regions of the world to combat terrorist activity bent on the
nation's overthrow.  As commander-in-chief, he is determined to
strengthen his war powers unfettered by obligations of accountability
and seeks even greater authority to launch a police action in the Middle
East."  This is his description of Caesar, but his point is quite
clear.  To accomplish this Caesar/ George W equivalence, the text was
altered.  Some of the changes were made to bring it in at under three
hours, but others were to conform the text to Williamson vision.
Dramatug Barry Kraft writes that it was based on F, but "certain parts
of the text have to be fitted to {Williamson's} concept... Shakespeare
himself had to manipulate his source material."  These changes are not
specified, though he adds that Williamson felt the play had no heroes,
only power grasping, selfish politicians.  In other words, Williamson
had something he wanted to say, and he forced *Julius Caesar* to say it.
This is not my interpretation of the play.  I rather think Brutus's
republican motivation is sincere, though he hints in the end it may not
have been pure.  I think there is enough ambiguity to support much of
Williamson's approach.  It seemed somehow significant that I
participated in an anti-Iraq war rally before seeing the show.  One of
the signs read *Regime Change Begins at Home*.  Having already read
Williamson's comments, I could not help but think of *JC*.

To underline this geopolitical world, costumes were based on different
periods of the 20th century, significantly ending in gas masks and
Desert Storm like fatigues.  Those wrecked auto sculptures referred to
above were not that at all.  They were piles of armor and weapons, and
were on stage constantly as a reminder of the nation's bloody past, and
the aggressive way it meets its political objectives.  This seemed most
telling in a couple of scenes when characters hid behind them.  Indeed,
most of the decoration was metallic, steely looking, and somewhat
reminiscent of the RSC's settings for *The Wars of the Roses*.

The Brecht touches were right in line with this largely coherent and
visionary production.  She was the Soothsayer and Mother Courage moving
about the dead.

Having said all this, I didn't like *JC* very much.  I thought some of
the blocking choices were not supportable, and most of the acting was
not up to the demands, especially Derek Lee Weeden's heavily mannered
speaking of Brutus.

I also see the play very differently.  For Williamson, it is about one
thing.  I think it is about that thing, and much more besides.  To give
him his due, Williamson wanted to give the world a message with
resonance for our troubled times, and in this I believe he succeeded.
In shaping it as he did, he missed much of the play, but so did Peter
Brook when he directed *Lear*, and that is considered one of the finest
stagings of the 20th century.

The fault, dear friends, is not in the concept, but in how we receive
it.

All the best,
Mike Jensen

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