Social media and the 24-hour news cycle are the battlefields of political warfare in "Caesar," a modern take on the classic tragedy by Shakespeare, now running at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.
“Caesar” is both adapted and directed by Quetta Carpenter, who drew on her experience both as an actor and as a political campaign worker to craft a chillingly contemporary exploration of power and politics. And the timing for the show could not be more ideal, revealed Carpenter.
“We’re living in a world where politics are a part of our daily lives in a way that they haven’t been in much of my lifetime. The way that we’re watching media influence public opinion, and reaction to the media and all those things happening I think makes doing a modern version of 'Julius Caesar' right now particularly timely," she said.
Modernizing a Shakespeare play is more complicated that just swapping Elizabethan ruffs and bejeweled codpieces for suits and cell phones. Modern technology becomes almost its own character in the play. Hashtags, as much as daggers, do the dirty work on the Ides of March.
“When you modernize a Shakespeare play, there’s this problem of social media. Now we communicate over social media so much and we communicate by text so much that to have something like a letter go astray doesn’t make sense anymore,” said Carpenter.
“If you look at how something would happen in this world, no one is going to stand in the middle of the town square and listen to the funeral oration. That doesn’t happen. Where does that happen now? It happens at a press conference. So social media is very much incorporated, also text messages and news content.”
Massive video screens on stage flash with news reports, tweets and emojis as Caesar’s tragic power play results in assassination, and Rome is consumed in dangerous political warfare.
Carpenter used the modern take on Shakespeare’s tale to also explore the role of women in politics. By swapping genders of key characters – like Cassia for Cassius and May Antonio for Marc Antony – the play reveals how far woman have come in politics. And how far they still need to go.
“The first role that I decided needed to be switched to female is Cassius. She is Cassia in this production because the action of this character is to go to everyone and build this conspiracy and build all these people that are on the team. And every single person who is on this team asks this character, ‘Did you get Brutus yet? Did you get Brutus?’ Everybody keeps asking this.”
“And so, who is the person who needs a man to front them? I look at the world that we’re living in right now, where you see women running for president and you see them vetted in a different way by the public eye. And I looked at that and I said, ‘A woman needs that.’ In the public eye, it’s assumed that a woman needs a man in order to get an agenda accomplished. And I hate that about our reality. But I also find it to be truthful.”
In adapting the original work, Carpenter estimated that she kept about 80% Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” About 10% come from other Shakespeare plays, plus about 5% Roman philosophers from the time of Julius Caesar and 5% original dialogue.
“I mainly took from “Coriolanus,” because it’s another Shakespeare play set in Rome that’s about politics, so that’s on obvious place to pilfer,” Carpenter said, grinning. “Then I stole a bit from “King Lear,” there’s a little bit of “Midsummer,” there’s a little bit of “Henry VI, Part One.”
“So I just thought about what I wanted to say, and then I would think about every play where a character is in that frame of mind. And then I’d go look and see if there’s any text I could lift.”
“If you are a Shakespeare buff and you know your stuff, you’re going to recognize all the stuff that I stole,” she laughed.
Carpenter’s work on Ralph Nader’s political campaign informed her approach to reworking Shakespeare’s classic tale.
“I learned how a campaign works. I found it interesting how often we would publicly compromise on a campaign ideal. We were the Green Party for Nader. And we had a diesel van at one point that needed to go out. And they asked us to remove the diesel sticker from the back. So there were these small things that were a violation of a public perception of an ethic that we are supposed to be holding in this party.”
When audience members file out of the theater after the end of the play, Carpenter hopes that they do more than just stuff their ticket stub in a pocket and move on. There’s plenty of questions to chew over after the curtain comes down.
“I’d love for them to talk about this speech at the end of the play where Brutus asks whether it’s better to stick with the status quo and live within what’s here, or is it better to try and usurp what is there, because that creates chaos and a power vacuum. What is the solution, given that assassination is the insane thing to do and will never come to good. But what can be done? What should be done? How do we deal with it when we have opposing viewpoints? How do we find a way to communicate and change the world when we have distinctly opposing viewpoints?”
“I do think this is a place where we are sitting in the world, not just in America. We have this bifurcated population, and at some point, it’s going to come to a head or we’re going to find a way to talk to each other. I’d love them to be walking away talking about what else can we do than bring it to violence.”
“Caesar” runs in rotation at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival through Aug. 10. All performances take place in the ISU Center for the Performing Arts.
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