By Joel Pierson | H-T Theater columnist
Jan 14, 2018
William Shakespeare had a real interest in Roman history, as evidenced in his best-known work about this era, “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.”
In fact, much of what we know about the end of the dictator’s reign comes from Shakespeare’s work, down to his famous (and without any basis in historical fact) last words: “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar.” Historians believe his actual final words to be, “Ow, s***, that hurts. Please stop stabbing me.”
I should have inserted a spoiler alert before that slightly irreverent quip, but if you’re interested in “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” and you’re expecting a happy ending for him, you probably weren’t paying close attention in ninth-grade English. Let’s face it: that’s where many of us first encountered the tale of conspiring Roman senators hell-bent on taking down the tyrannical leader on the Ides of March, 44 BC. We were tasked with reading it for homework, with key sections read aloud in class by fellow students who were probably shaky at best on what they were orating. Not the best way to experience such an influential work of literature.
Fortunately, the IU Theater is here to rescue you. Their production of “Julius Caesar,” opening this week, puts those powerful words in the mouths of a talented cast, bringing all the drama to life — and later, you know, death. So, friends, Bloomingtonians, countrymen, I come to praise this “Caesar,” not to bury it. And to find out a bit more about putting this production together, I talked with director Jenny McKnight, including the fact that the actor portraying Julius Caesar happens to be named Meaghan.
“There are a number of non-traditional casting choices in our production,” McKnight told me, “and some of those were made prior to auditions. However, the decision to cast a female in the role of Julius Caesar was made following auditions, for a variety of reasons, including the opportunity for Meaghan to play this iconic role, the ways that gender might influence the relationships in the play, and the strength of her audition. Casting is a bit like playing Tetris — all the pieces must fit together perfectly to create some kind of solid structure!”
I asked her if there was an effort to politicize the production, as has been done in the past, making it a metaphor for a specific government or regime. She replied, “One of the things I like most about our production is that it isn’t specific to any real political climate or situation, which allows the audience to note the parallels between the events of Caesar’s death and the subsequent chaos with a variety of historical figures. I like the idea that in our production, Rome and Caesar is not germane to one time and place, but floats through history. I think this does allow our audiences to be more involved in creating the story along with us.”
The production examines how rhetoric works to influence people and get things done. Mark Antony is the play’s speechmaker, addressing the masses and influencing their opinions. McKnight added, “One of the glories of studying and performing Shakespeare is the opportunity to ‘speak the speech’ as written by arguably the most skilled writer of poetic and dramatic language. Shakespeare’s facility with words requires our student actors to rise to the occasion, and seeing the progress they have made in appreciating and owning that responsibility has been really exciting.”
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If you go
WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance
WHAT: “Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare
WHERE: Ruth N. Halls Theater, 275 N. Jordan Ave.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19-20 and 23-27; 2 p.m. Jan 27
TICKETS: $10–20. Call 812.855.1103 or visit theatre.indiana.edu.