Tomorrow’s the big day! That gender-bending production of Julius Caesar I wrote about a few weeks ago opens tomorrow, for one night only. It’s been such a fun production to work on, and I can’t wait to see it all come together.
Perhaps the most interesting element of this production, for me, has been the work on Caesar’s death. Simultaneously playing Caesar and coaching the cast in contact improv (CI) work has been quite a challenge–it’s not always easy to see or sense how your own body is working in relation to others’ (which is one of the reasons I’m very grateful to have had such a wonderful director and assistant director!). It requires a special kind of spatial awareness to surrender control and body weight to another person while still remaining conscious of aesthetic. After all, it doesn’t matter how cool the movement feels if no one can see it or it looks ridiculous. It’s one of the reasons that Laura (our director) decided to use CI in the first place: it can help to create stage violence that has a dance-like aesthetic, resulting in something simultaneously beautiful and horrifying, aesthetically pleasing and psychologically terrifying.
I think that this kind of work is going to pay huge dividends for this particular production because it makes more sense that the scripted stabbings for the world that we’ve created for this play. There’s an old theatrical/literary saying that men stab and women poison when they want to kill. This is meant to suggest that men kill with force and women kill with cunning–it’s a violent twist on the mother’s line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding: ‘The man may be the head of the family, but the woman is the neck.’ So what happens to that dynamic when it’s a woman heading the ‘family’–or in Caesar’s case, the country–and her husband is sterile?
One of Laura’s answers–and consequently one of the production’s answers–is that Caesar is killed not with knives, but with unarmed hands. There’s a kind of primal brutality to beating someone with fists rather than with weapons, and a clear message that the perpetrators are physically stronger than the victim.
In our version of that scene, I, as actor and as character, am not in control of my body in the sense that I’m bound, by the rules of the CI game, to follow impulses given to me by my fellow actors. I’m also required to give them my body weight and allow them a measure of control over that. And while as an actor I’m conscious that I’ve made the choice to participate in a stylised movement sequence, as the character of Caesar I feel that it’s far more violating and humiliating to be denied control over my body in this way than to be stabbed or poisoned. The aesthetic we’ve created will (hopefully) give the illusion that my power over my own body is being forcibly taken from me, which provides a huge power rush for the conspirators as well. In addition, each of them has a moment or two with Caesar all to himself, giving them the opportunity to get personal about their involvement in the assassination. Each of the men (and they are still all men) doing the killing has, at some point, individual control of Caesar’s body. They don’t just assassinate Caesar in this production, they torture and humiliate her. The fact that Brutus gives the death blow after watching most of the scene from the sidelines makes it all the more horrible, and yet oddly beautiful. The final position for Caesar and Brutus looks like nothing so much as a ballroom dance dip.
I’m very excited to see how all of these things read to our audience tomorrow. That’s the fun of this kind of experimental work: you never know if anyone will “get” it or not. Fingers crossed on tomorrow’s audience!