Some 400 years ago, William Shakespeare looked back at events that had taken place in ancient Rome almost 2,000 years earlier to create his powerful drama, “Julius Caesar.”
Now Cal Poly’s Theatre and Dance Department brings the classic tragedy into the 21st century with the use of film, projections and live video to tell the story of the fall of Rome and the assassination of Caesar.
Associate theatre professor Josh Machamer directs the production. In the Bard’s original version, Julius Caesar is killed early in the narrative, but Machamer has taken an oblique approach to that pivotal event. The play has been deconstructed, with scenes taken out of sequence to show the politics, attitudes and personal relationships that built up to the murder.
“We let this one event be told from different perspectives, before, right after, and in the context of the scene itself,” the director explained.
The actual assassination is not seen until the end.
“We’re focusing on not what happens, but from a storyteller aspect, how does it happen?”
“Julius Caesar” showcases the fall of a once-mighty republic and the political leaders who clash over their ideals of power. In order to make the drama relevant to current times, Machamer wants to reflect the universal and timeless themes of politics and power, he said.
“We do it with the use of video, live imagery, slides and live camera, projecting what’s happening and to skew the idea of what is the center of this event.”
The idea of telling the story from different perspectives involves not only the views of the play’s characters, but the perspective of the audience itself. Two live cameras film the action onstage from different angles, and the images are projected. Thus audience members see the live action and two filmed versions in order to form their own perspectives.
“The audience gets a third perspective on a two-person scene,” the director said.
The scenes are taken out of sequence to re-emphasize the metaphor for how history keeps repeating itself. Some scenes are eliminated, some are trimmed back. They are arranged to show how the characters justify the cause, Machamer said. For example, they claim that the murder was planned and well organized, but the actual scene is savage and unorganized.
It’s important for the audience to understand where each scene is in relation to “day zero,” the assassination, the director explained.
“Projections show how similar these events are to what went on before and after. Twenty months after, how different are the conversations? Is it any better? They are holding onto a vision of Rome that was unsavable whether Caesar was killed or not.”
More than 40 students are involved in the production, both as cast and crew, and the theater department is collaborating with the Liberal Arts and Engineering Studies Program. Before rehearsals, the students discussed both the history of the actual event and the play itself, Machamer said.
“We decided that there are no villains. Everyone is doing what they think is right. Their drastic pursuit of what they think is right prohibited them from seeing what was wrong.”
The students studied the era, not only the politics, but the cultural history, “so they would know who they are supposed to be.”
The innovations in the production give the students a sense of possession, and the interdisciplinary aspects make the students excited about it, Machamer said. They are anxious to know how it is going to look.
“The technical point of view adds another cook in the kitchen.”
This production is not a corruption of the original, he noted. “Shakespeare was a collage artist, pulling from here and there to tell a story.”
The setting and costumes are not time-related—neither togas nor business suits — the director explained. They are symbolic and stylized rather than realistic. There are inferences to to-day’s politics, but they are not specific either. They reflect the “historical continuum of power grabbing,” Machamer said, likening history and politics to a river with different banks.
“It has slowed at one bank and then another, but the river continues to move forward.”