British guest director Jonathan Munby discusses his production of Julius Caesar.
CST: Why did you decide to direct Julius Caesar here—and now?
JM: The question I ask in approaching any Shakespeare play is this: How can I allow the audience to be as close to it as I possibly can? What does it mean for them, coming to see this play in 2013 in this theater? How can I release the play for them?
This play is about power, about the misuse of power. It’s also about fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of misrule, fear of losing those things we hold priceless, such as liberty. How thrilling it would be to do this play and bring it into the present tense—so that we tell this story not in ancient Rome but as if we are seeing it through the lens of contemporary political America. There was something about the immediacy of the American election looming that heightens this story in a really interesting way. As a theater-maker, I have to make my own connections in order to tell the story. I’m interested in where the writer was when he or she wrote it and what they were responding to in their world. And I have to find something as relevant to me, or as interesting to me.
CST: To an audience not yet familiar with your work, how would you describe your approach to these works?
JM: Language is at the forefront, always. The word comes first, but what I try to do is find an emotional truth. If you dare to go there, these plays become extraordinarily resonant, and personal, as opposed to being pageants about a time and a place that we no longer connect with. Real people in real situations. It’s understanding first, I suppose, the London that Shakespeare was writing in, and the political debate that was going on. And then it’s transporting that story into our present--and the fantasy of ‘What if?’ It’s a terrifying fact, is it not, that history repeats itself and that we don’t learn from our mistakes. These stories seem to be on an endless kind of cycle. The question I want the audience to come away with is: What is this all for? Why on earth did we go through this? What have we achieved from this?
CST: Let’s start talking about some of the key characters in Caesar.
JM: I think Shakespeare was working out how to write Hamlet as he wrote Brutus. I think those questions, those interior questions, that crisis of self about ‘Who am I?’ ‘What do I believe in?’ feels to me like a prototype Hamlet. That’s what makes Brutus a really interesting character and why it takes so long to persuade him to join the cause. He’s torn. I think he believes in Caesar to a certain extent, but he’s also fearful of his potential if he’s crowned.
Antony seems to be much more invested in the current regime and is torn apart, affected deeply by the assassination—a real believer inspired then to lead the loyalists’ charge and join forces with Octavius. But I think there are chinks in his armor, too. We’ll explore it fully and show every unfortunate human facet of these relationships.
Cassius, to me, is the catalyst for the assassination plot. He seems personally betrayed by his leader not fulfilling some ideal, and he’s terrified by Caesar’s potential. But instead of waiting and affecting change if necessary through dialogue, he starts the ball rolling, managing to inspire his brother and friend, Brutus, among others. They assassinate their leader.
CST: And Caesar? What kind of man is he?
JM: In public, Caesar denies the crown three times. Now, is that political? Is it a shrewd move? Does he have that burning desire to be almighty and is hiding it? It’s fear of that desire for absolute power that fuels his assassination. But Caesar’s also sick. He has epilepsy. He’s deaf in one ear. He’s fearful of his own mortality in a way. I think he’s a man with a great tension inside him. The public and the private face. In public, he’s like an egomaniac, strong willed, determined, bulletproof, mocking, ruthless. In private, he is a frightened old man whose health is failing him. We need to view all of these characters with great integrity and give a fairly balanced view. We need to understand him as an audience and have empathy for him. He’s a human being, like the rest of us.
CST: The Citizens, too, will play a major role in your production?
JM: Yes, I do see this play as an investigation of the people, the citizens. Us. Shakespeare writes not just these great figures of history—Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, Casca, Cicero, Cinna, Antony. He also gives us the citizens, and they become as important a character as some of the principles. I was watching some footage of the aftermath of JFK’s assassination and what it did to the people--that punch to the solar plexus, that emotional chaos when you remove somebody you believed in so entirely. In this play, a group of people in mourning who are vulnerable are manipulated by politicians and made to turn. In a scene which I think is Shakespeare at his absolute best, a poet is murdered on the street. He just happens to share the name of one of the conspirators. (It’s also Shakespeare having an “in” joke about all of these names sounding so similar…) They tear this man—one of their own-- from limb to limb in the street. Upturned by powerful rhetoric, they are turned into murderers.
CST: Jonathan, talk about what happens next, after the assassination.
JM: People sometimes find the play’s second half anticlimactic, but to me it feels incredibly thrilling for a number of reasons. It then becomes a play about how we deal with chaos of civil way and the disintegration of society. Something that’s born out of fear actually turns into something much more frightening. If you think of the Arab Spring, the question there wasn’t necessarily about whether these leaders were going to be toppled. With Gaddafi, it felt like an inevitability, actually. The question is what happens then, what happens now? The same with the invasion of Iraq, the same with Afghanistan. We have invaded countries in the name of democracy because we fear the potential of these leaders. The question we don’t ask is, ‘What happens now?’ ‘What is the exit strategy?’ That’s exactly what the second half of this play is about. We remove the structure. We remove the concrete at the center of it and we descend into civil war, into chaos, with people fighting for their lives. To me, there is also something very human in this second half of the play—including one of the best written scenes in the entire canon. It’s a scene between Brutus and Cassius – a scene about brothers, a scene between friends, a scene about betrayal. The play goes beyond the political and actually becomes very simple and very, as I say, human.
CST: Can you say more about what you mentioned before, about the power of rhetoric in this world—and in ours?
JM: I’ve been working in South Africa recently, and they are fearful that there is no leader to inspire the next generation. There is no next Mandela. The language in this play is staggering. We think very negatively sometimes about politicians and their language, but there’s a case to be made in this play, as well, for a need of language, a need for our politicians to be great orators, to inspire us.
CST: Placing your production in contemporary “Rome, DC,” you might have made some of the senators and conspirators roles for women. Why did you decide not to?
JM: Staging a contemporary production of the play, I certainly could have turned some male roles into women. But I think Shakespeare is doing something quite specific about the male/female conflict in this play. The women have to fight hard to be heard. Brutus’s wife Portia harms herself in order to get her husband’s attention. The maleness of the body politic, the ideal image of what they want their leader to be, is at the center of it.
That in mind, I chose to cast a woman as the Soothsayer-- a fascinating character who is in touch with an otherness, who can see the future. Who warns Caesar. What is it for this woman to challenge this leader? We’ve been fantasizing about a possible story for her—as someone perhaps who lost somebody very close to her in the recent war. Grief has pushed her over the edge--and she’s done with death. She’ll become the conscience, or the heartbeat of the story, if you like. Lindsay Jones, our composer, is writing a lament that she will sing. Woven throughout, sometimes in counterpoint to the play’s action, I want it to haunt us.
CST: How will staging this play in CST’s Courtyard Theater influence your production?
JM: You’ve got this great thrust and all these entrances through the audience. I want to wrap the action of the play around the audience and pull them inside it--like we’re inside the battlefield itself. I’ve never seen Caesar at the Globe, but I can imagine it being a really exciting play to see there. This play in particular was about those real people standing at the Globe in front of those actors as they said these lines. And it makes doing this play in this theater really exciting because you as an audience are so close to it. It’s about these people watching it as much as it’s about the people in the world of the play.
CST: Have you made any changes to the script?
JM: I’ve made some cuts to tighten the structure and the story. And I’ve cut pieces together and across each other. We can do it in film, so let’s do it in theater. This play has always struck me not as a five-act structure, which all Shakespeare’s plays are, but actually as a filmic, three-act structure. You have the plot at the beginning, the conspiracy: Act I. You have the assassination and Caesar’s funeral: Act 2. Then you have the aftermath: Act 3.
To me it seemed important to cut some of these characters out of a very long name role call—and to strengthen others. Lucius, for example, Brutus’s aide--almost like a son, the son he never had--simply disappears at some point from Shakespeare’s text. Well, let’s be braver than that and see this relationship through—and into the war.
CST: Lastly, what are your thoughts about being an ‘Englishman in a strange land’ and directing this play in particular?
JM: I’m a Brit. I’m very aware of being an outsider coming to America, choosing this incredibly contentious context for this play. My government, as well, is very good at keeping us in a state of fear, and it seems to me that it’s this idea of fear that’s at the core of this play. I want to be as balanced as I can about how we view each of these characters. I can let them and their text define who they are for the audience rather than overlaying too much. I’m very, very conscious of each choice I make, especially as an outsider. But it’s also a privilege being an outsider. I have an objectivity about this country and about its politics that perhaps you as natives don’t. All I hope to do really is hold a mirror up to where you are now and to show every side of that and hopefully in a balanced way.
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