Playing Politics: Director Jason D. Rennie Discusses “Julius Caesar”
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”
Julius Caesar utters this famous line in Act One of Shakespeare’s tragedy, blissfully unaware that fault and fate would soon play large parts in his own destiny. In this Monday’s staged reading of Julius Caesar, fault and fate are two questions Director Jason Rennie knows better than to tackle directly.
“I have always been very intrigued by the play and it took a while to figure out why I was drawn to it,” says Jason. “I think it’s mostly because the ambiguity is so appealing to me.”
That ambiguity is what has made this particular tragedy so memorable for audiences, and at the same time so challenging for actors and directors. Even though acts of savagery abound, the clarity of right and wrong in this political arena is not so absolute. Sympathy, surprisingly, falls on the backs of unexpected characters. The lines in the sand are blurry.
While this is Jason’s first foray into directing Julius Caesar, he has been through this story as an actor more than once.
“My drive to want to do this play stems from the frustration I’ve had as an actor,” he explains, citing the questions the story raises about politics, patriotism, and power. “The play itself doesn’t take one side or the other as far as the central conflict is concerned. All these characters, even the antagonists or the minor functionaries, are all drawn with ambiguity. It’s plausible to see them on one side or the other of that conflict, and you can easily sympathize one way or the other.”
In fact, he states, a more accurate title would probably be The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus, the character on whom most of the moral ambiguity falls during the course of the story.
“Brutus feels patriotic and wants to combat tyranny,” explains Jason, “but at the same time he’s thinking of committing murder. Can you ever truly justify and sanctify murder? I think none of those questions are actually answered within the play.”
Shakespeare plays his political cards close to the vest on this one, which makes sense, given that the play is perceived as a veiled critique of the Elizabethan monarchy. The fascination with Rome in the late 1500s provided an apt backdrop to the perceived overreaching power of Queen Elizabeth’s self-proclaimed deific reign.
“Elizabeth was starting to equate herself with that divinity and an immortal type of ruler, which was extremely hubristic,” says Jason. “It was a very hot political issue at the time.”
For us in modern times, the play still carries a critique – not of monarchy, necessarily, but of patriotism and the lengths to which it will be cited as justification for untoward acts.
“What is the motive when you invoke patriotism?” Jason asks. “Is it to justify an act that you personally don’t feel you can stand behind without it? And who’s to judge?”
Indeed, many of these questions have arisen within our current political climate, not just domestically, but globally. While Shakespeare writes sympathetic characters on both sides of the issue in Julius Caesar, the dialogue is the same as the one we are currently having around the world.
“A lot of the political issues that have been front page issues over the last few years can be boiled down to the same types of things,” says Jason, commenting that Julius Caesar could be performed against a backdrop of the current political landscapes of Egypt or Syria. “It’s a question of who has more power and do they deserve it?”
And with complicated questions come complicated answers. Once power is taken, what is left of the political state? It’s fine to depose a king, says Jason, but what happens afterwards? In this light, he says, Julius Caesar becomes not only a tragedy, but also a cautionary tale.
Hopefully, he and his actors can shed some light on this subject, but Jason is just as wary as Shakespeare was of actually picking sides.
“Shakespeare isn’t condoning or condemning a political assassination in Julius Caesar, but instead asking whether or not it is within the public’s power to make the decision,” clarifies Jason with a statement that, like the nature of both art and politics, perhaps generates more questions than it does answers.
— Tiffany Tang
Julius Caesar, a staged reading. Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, November 18. 6:30 pm complimentary wine/appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. Please rsvp to firstname.lastname@example.org and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase tickets in advance. $15.