Sunday, April 8, 2012

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar at the Bogota FITB

Julius Caesar
Centre Dramatique National Orléans/Loiret/Centre
American Repertory Theater
Teatro William Shakespeare, Bogota
Friday, 6 April 2012

Conference with director Arthur Nauzyciel
Jorge Tadeo Lozano University
Saturday, 7 April 2012

Getting Lost in the Search for Meaning

French director Arthur Nauzyciel is adamant on the subject of the importance of turning to the original text for meaning and he laud's Shakespeare's Julius Caesar for its richness. In his reverence for the text, however, Nauzyciel appears to have forgotten that the play was meant to be spoken, and the decision to deliver the lines as they are written, in verse format, results in unnatural breaks and denaturalized language, making it difficult to understand.

Nauzyciel defends this choice, noting that Shakespeare's language is not naturalistic because "nobody talks that way, either then or now." Much of Shakespeare's language is inaccessible to the modern audience, but instead of performing for understanding, Nauzyciel has opted to isolate, distort, and even eliminate the language. The effect is that rather than privileging the text, he strips it of meaning.

I suppose that the effect might be less jarring for a French speaker than for a native English speaker. Nauzyciel acknowledges that when his version of Julius Caesar is performed in the United States, people complain about the way the dialogue is delivered, but he doesn't get these complaints elsewhere. This performance was in Bogota, and the subtitles for the Spanish-speaking audience, projected at the top of the stage, were always slightly delayed so that they didn't coincide with what was happening below. Technical difficulty or deliberate choice?

The performance is highly stylized: The actors can't walk and talk at the same time. Speeches are delivered in rigid, stylized tableaux. In the opening scene between Flavius and Murellus, the actors are stilted in their speech. Flavius appeared to forget his lines before recovering and barrelling through the text at a frenetic pace, mumbled and often inaudible. This production was mounted in 2008, and the actors were reunited for this performance. So if it appeared that Flavius forgot his lines, he probably did.

Taking the comparison of undermining the spoken word further, Brutus's servant Lucius is portrayed as a mute. He has no spoken words at all; his dialogue is delivered in sign language. He is also a spectator, seated to the side of the stage and observing the action through most of the play. This convention works within the context of the play. Like the audience, Lucius is an observer, a bystander on the sidelines of history, and the performance is subtle and poignant.

Sara Kathryn Bakker as Portia and Calpurnia is clear and understandable. Mark Antony's "Friends, Romans, countrymen speech" is delivered with crystal clarity (whereas in subsequent appearances his English was pretty hard to understand). Nauzyciel presumes that most of the audience will be familiar with this speech and will understand it, so he throws the public that bone.

While the dialogue is rushed, movement is slowed down and drawn out. The performers move as if through a dreamscape. This is an interesting choice. Much of the play takes place at night. The conspirators meet at night. Portia is awakened and confronts Brutus because he is hiding something from her. Calpurnia has a premonitory dream of Caesar's death. The dream, its telling, and making something real by telling it, is one of the themes that Nauzyciel emphasizes. He considers Julius Caesar as a precursor to the world of Hamlet, whose universe is populated with ghosts, intrigue, and murder. He also emphasizes that he wanted to make sure that no death is banal. Each character's demise is staged deliberately, and drawn out in detail, given its moment.

Language, Nauzyciel insists, rather than action, is the vehicle for furthering the plot. Julius Caesar is murdered because Brutus is told that he should be murdered. The doubts that Brutus expresses lead him and his followers to suicide. The recounted premonition comes true. The word becomes reality. Julius Caesar was the first play that Shakespeare presented at The Globe Theatre. Nauzyciel considers this play as a sort of "manifesto on the theatre" as a place in which the word can change the course of the world.

The 1960s staging and costuming neither adds to nor detracts from the play. The themes of political power and corruption are universal, and are as relevant and contemporary now as they were in Roman times or in Shakespeare's time. This is a play that can work in any historical context. Nauzyciel's version cuts some scenes from the original, but he does not adapt the text. Opting not to make the text consistent with the staging, makes the period staging somewhat gratuitous. What does work is the suggestion of anonymity and timelessness achieved by having all the actors wearing the same sort of suits. Nauzyciel explains that he never works on developing character but rather on the text and with the actor. Following this logic, a number of the actors have performed different roles at different times. They become interchangeable.

In terms of interchangeability, Shakespeare often played with concept of mirroring. Cassius tells Brutus: "And since you know you cannot see yourself / So well as by reflection, I, your glass, / Will modestly discover to yourself / That of yourself which you yet know not of." The structure for the entire second act was inspired by Brutus's line: "I shall find time, Cassius, I shall find time." Nauzyciel explains that he took inspiration from the mirrored symmetry in the way that the phrase reflects itself perfectly.

Music plays a significant role in this production. Nauzyciel was clear from the start that he wanted to include a jazz trio as part of the staging. He explains that he uses the music to keep the production contemporary, and to suspend time between different actions. He emphasizes that the music is not meant to be a chorus, or to comment on the action onstage, although the use of the song "Suicide is painless" to introduce the scene in which Brutus and his followers will kill themselves is a pretty obvious chorus commentary. Nauzyciel says that wants the music to serve as a gentle counterpoint to the violence. As well, because the text is so dense, Nauzyciel explains that he wants the music to give the audience a break from the intense listening. This concern is pretty unnecessary, given that as it was performed, the dialogue melded into an unintelligible soundscape.

Nauzyciel uses an empty theatre as a backdrop. Often the actors deliver their lines to the "empty house" at the back of the stage, with their backs to the audience. The overall impression, underlined by the way that the lines are being delivered, it that this production isn't for the benefit of the flesh and blood audience.

The play ends with the actors dancing and singing Nelly Furtado's "You Don't Mean Nothing At All To Me," a contemporary version of the dance often used to end a play during Elizabethan times. The song title is awfully ironic, given the performance that has just unfolded.

I appreciate the director's emphasis on prioritizing the original text, but he has become so focussed on the words that he has lost the meaning. Arthur Nauzyciel needs to look at his 2008 production with fresh eyes and fresh ears because it has gone stale and fails to achieve the most basic of its intentions, which is to convey the meaning of the story through language.

Joe Broderick with Arthur Nauzyciel.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

FITB XIII: Gemelos

Photo from: Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogotá

Teatro Cinema
Santiago, Chile
Teatro Nacional Fanny Mikey, Saturday 24 March, 3:00

A Tale of Innocence and Perversion

Based on the book Le grand cahier (The Notebook) by Agota Kristof, Gemelos tells the story of a pair of twin boys who are sent away to escape the bombings in the city during the Second World War. The story is told with classic fairy tale iconography: two innocents must cling together and learn to survive, an absent mother, a wicked grandmother, an even crueler outside world. The boys learn about fortitude, compassion, deceit, manipulation, and finally love, but the lessons are self-taught and the version of humanism at which the boys arrive is a dark and twisted vision.

This production describes itself as "cinematographic theatre," which I would consider a bit of a misnomer: Although the opening scenes are framed with a camera shutter that closes and opens on different views, the overall image is that of puppet theatre. The puppet theatre sits on the dimly lit stage, with its curtains drawn, as the audience files in. The impact is slightly alienating: puppets are generally not the medium of choice for adult theatre. Seen through the lens of a camera, or within the frame of the puppet stage, the characters are made small. They are reduced by circumstances that are much larger than they are. Don't be put off by the genre though; this was a beautifully conceived and executed performance.

The three human characters move with the stiff woodenness of puppets. There is no sophistication. The simple neighbor girl --who is used and abused by the priest and then by the soldiers-- is a defenseless rag doll. The childlike response of the twin boys to their situation is crude, innocent and honest in its simplicity. They deliver their lines with the innocent frankness of the child who observes that emperor has no clothes, making the truth impossible to ignore.

The young boys focus on surviving. They beat each other up while repeating: "This does not hurt me. This does not hurt me," to train themselves not to feel. They labor hard on their grandmother's farm, to become strong, hard, and self-sufficient. They learn to ignore the insults of the villagers who consider their grandmother a witch and their mother a slut. They learn to disregard their grandmother's scorn for their mother. The cruel lessons of life give them the strength demand more food from their hardened grandmother, and to go to the shoemaker and demand shoes (who tells them that they do not have enough money for two pairs or shoes, but who gives them the shoes anyway, along with a pair for their friend, and a leather ball… just before he is taken away to the concentration camp). They confront the priest who has been sexually abusing the mentally deficient neighbor girl who they protect. They demand that he provide the girl and her mother with charity for survival, and they fully agree with the priest that what they are doing is extortion.

The fact that the characters are portrayed as puppets is the literal expression of their desensitization and dehumanization. The priest (the one who has been sexually abusing the neighbor girl) understands the monstrosities that the twins have become: "Whatever their crime, forgive them. Poor lambs who have lost their way in an abominable world, themselves victims of our perverted times, they know not what they do."

This was a beautifully complex staging and performance. One of the best pieces I have seen during all the years I have attended the Iberamerican Theatre Festival in Bogota.

Photo from: Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogotá