As a regular theatre-goer, I might be forgiven for feeling a little unease when attending a recent production of Richard 3 by the Bell Shakespeare Company.
Several US examples of openly political dissent in the theatre, most notably by cast members at a performance of Hamilton ,and lately, a protest by audience members at a performance of Julius Caesar by the Public theatre in New York, give the lie to those who might claim such an art form has little to say to an audience in the 21st century.
In Hamilton’s case, Actor Brandon Victor Dixon appeared on stage and addressed (then) vice-president elect, Mike Pence. President Trump’s response was swift, asserting that the theatre was a “safe place”. I might well ask, as a few have, when is theatre ever safe?
The iconoclastic Public Theatre (birthplace of Hair and of Hamilton) has been accused by certain sections of the media (Fox News for one) who implied that the particular production of Julius Caesar inspired violence.
Reaction to the production and subsequent publicity also prompted a swift riposte from Donald Trump Junior who wondered out loud about how much of this “art” is funded by taxpayers. In turn, the National Endowment for the Arts responded, noting that no taxpayer dollars support Shakespeare Sponsorship for this production of Julius Caesar was withdrawn by two corporate backers.
If a theatrical production such as this can be accused of anything, it is that it cannot please everybody. In Julius Caesar, we see that those who attempt to save democracy by undemocratic means pay the ultimate price. This alone makes the message worth hearing , even after four hundred years.
Such an incandescent reaction to a piece like this calls into question any understanding of the play and its creator’s vision. After all, theatre companies throughout the world have always taken certain liberties with Shakespeare’s works in an endeavour to contemporize them for a contemporary audience.
It ought to be noted that the ancient Greek playwrights used comedy and drama to identify corrupt politicians. In more recent times, legislators in Georgia attempted to ban the production of South Pacific without success, seeing its focus on racism as a threat.
In short, a playwright such as Shakespeare never sought to make theatre an educational tool: He simply wanted to write plays that an audience could relate to. Shakespeare captured all human emotions and experiences: tragedy, vengeance, loyalty and love. He was able not just to entertain, but to challenging audiences about their own world.
One might think theatrical point-scoring on the stage is not prescient: in 1937, Orson Welles staged a production of Julius Caesar where costuming was designed to make the audience think of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.