We ran a play-reading of Julius Caesar here in Edinburgh on Valentine’s Day – Sunday 14th February. Not the most appropriate play, of course, but I hadn’t noticed the date when planning our play-readings.
We had twelve booked to come, and twelve came, so we had just the right number for our first Play of the Month casting. (We have castings for 9 – 12 players, but it was good to check out the play of the month casting). The technology behaved itself so we’re confident that the Play of the Month casting should work well. My wi-fi router suffered a bit from having 12 PCs requestings Shakespeare scripts across the Internet, but it only slowed down a bit. I think the problem may be due to the wi-fi router being through a rather thick stone wall from the room where we read the play. (We live in a New Town flat, built like a castle). Our Play of the Month is set up to play all roles as “Highlit Text”, but of course individual players can change their script to “Parts and Cues” if they wish, and a few did so.
The playreading started, and very quickly it started to come alive. Of course, it’s not the same as a theatre production, or a film, but soon, disbelief is suspended and the story starts to tell itself. In a play-reading much more is left to the imagination, and that can be an advantage, and is so with Julius Caesar, with armies meeting in battle, and most of the cast falling on swords.
The players have a mix of backgrounds; some actors; some English literature lovers; and some who just can’t leave Shakespeare alone. Julius Caesar seemed to have more of an effect on most players than usual. The language is slightly different from most of the plays with more emphasis on rhetoric and rather formal English and perhaps even the Latin of Cicero or Livy. This brought out a mixture of pomposity and poetry and acting from the players. Brutus and Cassius worked well together, with the rather mild-mannered player of Cassius displaying a suspicious and slightly paranoid side to his personality that is not usually in evidence. I particularly enjoyed A3S2 with the funeral oration, where the Plebs came together to become a living corporate being swayed by the orators, and swaying in their turn. A more subtle thing I noticed was the effect the individual players had on each other. Some of the major parts, talking to each other, exaggerated their public personas, verging on pomposity, but when they talked to a minor role, played by someone I call an actor, their acting became more alive and personal.
The first three acts went really well.The two conflicts between Brutus and Cassius in Act 4, and then Octavius and Anthony in Act Five Scene One could have done with a bit of rehearsing. It’s difficult to pick up the nuances of the personal conflicts on a first read.
But the play does get into difficulty towards the end of Act Five with the interminable deaths. Romans falling on their swords or being slain by others: Cassius, Titinius, Cato, and nearly Lucilius, and finally Brutus fall over like nine-pins. Why is it that this self-slaughter no longer moves us? It seems to have been accepted as noble in Roman times, and presumably an Elizabethan / Jacobean audience was still moved by this, but one wonders why it seems that a modern British audience (and US?) is no longer moved. Something in our culture has changed.
The after play-reading discussion was the most vibrant we’ve had at any play-reading. The general consensus was that the play read very well, better perhaps than in performance. The formality, beauty, and rhetoric of the language perhaps made it more suited to a play-reading than most of the plays.
Our readers were evenly divided – six male; six female; – and the women on the whole seemed to feel that the males in this play were behaving pretty stupidly. There was very little sympathy for the traditional view of the male principals: Brutus, honourable, but rather too trusting; Cassius, envious and slightly paranoid; Mark Anthony (for so he is for me), the consummate orator seeking revenge.
I have to confess to be being moved by the conventional view. It’s what I was taught at school, and for some reason it has had quite an impact of me. I went to what we call in the UK a ‘public’ school, though they’re not really public – really rather private, and I’ve often wondered why they were called public school. This debate on Julius Caesar gave me a clue. Perhaps they are called public schools because they taught, in my day, public service. And it seems to me Brutus, Cassius, Caesar, and Mark Anthony, are living their lives in the public sphere, and the drama is about the public space. Portia and Calphurnia, represent the private world of family. Now it may be that in traditional societies male is usually associated with the public space, but that’s not always so. Queen Elizabeth, willing to die in front of her army at Tilbury, seems little different from Brutus, and (though I don’t know Anthony and Cleopatra very well), perhaps Cleopatra in that play lives a lot in the public space, dealing with public issues. Thinking of Julius Caesar as a play about living in the public sphere, seems to me to lead to richer thoughts than thinking of it from a male / female divide.
The discussion ranged far and wide. Everyone seemed to have their view of the play and the characters in it. None of them coincided, but all were determined to get their voice and view heard. I was quite astonished at the breadth and depth of views held. I’m afraid I’ve only got space to air the bee in my bonnet (see previous paragraph). Of course, Shakespeare plays do seem to have that affect on players, allowing everyone to find what they are seeking for. Usually we have a discussion which lasts maybe 15 – 30 minutes, until the sandwiches and biscuits are finished. After Julius Caesar the conversation was still going an hour after every crumb was eater, after every last dreg of tea and coffee had been drunk.
If you are not part of a play-reading group, you should give it a try. Julius Caesar, our play of the month awaits!
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