We look at the stories behind one of Shakespeare's most well-known and dark dramas with Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Artistic Director Barbara Gaines on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.
Read an interview with Jonathan Munby, the director of the upcoming production of Julius Caesar at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
You have an extensive resume with some international productions. One that stands out is a production of Romeo and Juliet in Tokyo, Japan. Tell us about that.
There were a couple of actors who wanted to play Romeo and Juliet in Japan, and Romeo had never been on stage before, so the producers came to the UK shopping for a director to do a production of a Shakespeare play, but also to help these young actors onto the stage for the first time. I’d had a previous relationship with these producers, and they’d come to see some of my work in London and liked it very much, so a kind of dialogue grew out of that really.
But it was an extraordinary experience. Not just working with the language, because the production was in Japanese, but what I wasn’t expecting really was the shift in cultural difference. But what’s interesting about these plays that we do, and one of the reasons that we keep doing them, is Shakespeare’s extraordinary understanding of humanity, and the universal ideas at the core of this play transcend all cultures.
What was interesting about Romeo and Juliet specifically was actually, I think it hits a Japanese audience in a stronger way than it would an English audience, interestingly. I think Japanese have a stronger sense of honor than we do, certainly in the UK. Honor and a sense of family ties, and a sense of pride, to the extent that one is willing to die for a cause. Also what’s central to Romeo and Juliet is the father/daughter relationship and that to me felt stronger in a Japanese context than it did back home. So it was interesting to see it through the Japanese lens, if you like.
From the looks of the promos on the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s website, it looks like you’ve made some changes to the original version of Julius Caesar.
We’ve just brought it into the present tense, that’s what we’ve done. I talked to Barbara Gaines, the brilliant artistic director here at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, about doing this play, and I said to her early on that the play is so resonant, the play is so of-our-times, how thrilling would it be to see it in contemporary clothes, as if these events were happening in the present tense? That’s what we’re doing. We’re not changing a single word of the language; we’re just allowing the play to live, as I said, as if it were happening now.
How will it benefit the audience to have it set in modern times? Does it give any additional meaning to the play?
I think that when you collide with this play, you get a sense that history is cyclical. That we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past. We’ve lived through extraordinary events in the past few years. The Arab Spring began a few years ago, and so on, where a people rise up and depose their dictator, there’s no difference between this and the events of Julius Caesar. And it was really intended to underline that idea that history is cyclical, that we as human beings make the same choices and often the same mistakes, it was really to underline that thought. There’s a line that keeps jumping out at me as I’m working away in the rehearsal room: “O, judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason!” How often can we say that about our leaders, and also the people too?
It seems that this idea is what you want your audience to walk away thinking about.
But also, it’s kind of a dangerous thing to ask the questions of “what if?” What if this were to happen now? What if we were to assassinate our leader? What would happen to the country? What happens next? That’s another question I want the audience to grapple with.
I think we’re very good, especially in the West, about making sort of rash decisions and leaping into an idea without thinking about the consequences. Without, if you like, an exit strategy. It’s exactly the same in Julius Caesar. A group of people are inspired to hold on to an idea of democracy, to hold on to a republic, to depose their dictator, without thinking through the consequences.
We’ve just lived through very similar circumstances, I think, not just in terms of the West, but in the Middle East, too. The toppling of some of these dictators in the Middle East, I think, had inevitability about it. What really wasn’t thought through was the next stage, and I think that’s a really interesting question, and certainly what Shakespeare was interested in terms of Julius Caesar. The second half of this play is the question, “what next?” That’s something I’m really keen for the audience to engage with; it’s something that, certainly as a Brit, I feel passionate about. Our foreign policies, because of our special relationship, between the US and the UK, means that we are linked in many ways. Certainly in terms of our recent relationship with Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on.
Why the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and why now?
Chicago Shakespeare Theater is blessed with one of the most fantastic stages in Chicago, physically. The audience wraps around it. The audience is inside the drama. It’s very similar to a theater I worked at a lot in the UK, the Swan Theater in Stratford on Avon, the RSC’s [Royal Shakespeare Company] home. There is nothing like experiencing one of these plays in that space. As I said, you’re inside the drama; you’re incredibly close to the actors. It’s a thrilling experience. And you take a play like this, that’s explosive and dangerous and beautiful at times too, you’re in for a really exciting evening. So, when Barbara invited me over and I came to see this theater, I thought, this is exactly the kind of space I want to tell this story in.
Speaking of Barbara Gaines, what kind of direction has she given you with this production?
She’s very trusting. She’s seen quite a bit of my work so she knows the kinds of things that I do, and she trusts me. We talked early on about this play and about what drew me about this play, and if I felt passionate about it; I think some of those ideas she shared. And she’s really handed it over to me. She’s been checking in with me, she’s been coming into the rehearsal room, she and I have continued our dialogue of course. She’s been one of the best artistic directors certainly that I’ve worked for, in terms of her trust but also in terms of her interest and engagement with the work. She also understands her audience. And she’s very good at giving her audiences thrilling theatrical experiences that they deserve.
Are the changes you made to Julius Caesar also about engaging audiences who may be turned off by Shakespeare’s plays because of bad experiences with his works during their schooling?
I think that’s absolutely right. I agree, not always, there are some great teachers out there, but most of our experiences, when we think about Shakespeare at school, we think of quite a dull experience. And it shouldn’t be. These plays are thrilling and speak absolutely of our time. So, yes, bringing this play into the present tense and giving it a contemporary context is absolutely about saying that to, especially a young audience, that these characters are you. These experiences are your experiences. This world is your world. It hopefully underlines all of that. Also, I’ve got a great group of actors working with me who speak this language as if it’s their own language, as if they’re making it up. They’re managing to harness the brilliance and the brilliant poeticism of Shakespeare and really own the language, and I think that helps enormously. The audiences will be kind of thrilled by how clear the play is and how undaunting the language actually is when you get to hear it through these brilliant actors.
Is there anything you want the audience to know before seeing this production?
Come with an open mind. That’s all I ask. Come with an open mind and see what we’re up to. I’d also like audiences to leave behind any baggage they carry about this play. Julius Caesar is a play that’s done quite often, and I would say leave your baggage at home and come with an open mind.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Watch the debut episode of Shakespeare Uncovered hosted by Ethan Hawke, on WTTW11 on Friday, January 25 at 9:00 pm. For more information on the series, click here.