In college, I worked on a production of Julius Caesar that scared me.
My dorm1 puts on a Shakespeare production every spring and has since 1970. Sophomore year, my friend Karin directed a Caesar set in the modern day, based on her experiences in post-Cold War Eastern Europe. This made costuming easy, because it meant we could raid local thrift stores for cheap suits. It also meant we could cast women in a number of traditionally male roles, which was always good given the relative number of female vs. male actors on campus. Casting Cassius as a woman lent all sorts of subtext to the Cassius-Brutus relationship.2 The scene that’s burned into my memory involved Cinna the poet.
The stage was a crumbling government building facade, built in the middle of the commons. It had two wall sconces like you would find on the outside of a building. One of these was smashed up3, but the other one worked. We closed the first half of the show with Antony’s funeral oration (“Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot / Take thou what course thou wilt!”), which gave us time to mop up the blood from Caesar’s body.4 We came back from intermission practically in the dark, which just that single light on the building facade revealing…
The Soothsayer hides behind the columns of the building.5 The sounds of rioting and looting are heard from the outer commons. Enter Cinna the poet.6 There is a commotion without. The Soothsayer runs off and the light winks out. The mob storms in; the Maglites they carry are now the only sources of illumination. They surround Cinna. She is trapped. They question her, jabbing their lights in her face as they demand answers. Upon finding she shares her name with one of the conspirators, they fly into a rage. As she screams, they beat her to death, their flashlights swinging wildly, beams slicing through the darkness.
So imagine you’re sitting in the audience for this, ten feet a way from the action. You can hear what the mob is doing, but you can catch only glimpses of it. Like the lurking creature in a horror movie, what you imagine happening is far worse than anything we could show you. I saw this scene three times in tech rehearsal, and I couldn’t stay in my chair during any of them. It was terrifying.
1 Technically, my college, but that would confuse people, so I relegate accuracy to a footnote.
2 Though given that this is Late Republican Rome we’re talking about, perhaps we just made that subtext a little more obvious.
3 The technical term is “distressed.”
5 This being set in Eastern Europe, the Soothsayer was a Roma woman.
6 Played, conveniently enough, by the same woman who played Cinna the Senator.
7 And that while working on the set on the Ides of the March I sliced open my thumb and had to go the hospital for fifteen stitches was icing on the cake.