Conceptualized and directed by GVT Associate Artistic Director Courtney Susman, this production offers audiences a fresh take on an old tragedy, setting the play in a near, dystopian future. But despite the changes, audiences are going to see the bones of the original ancient Roman tragedy, says Susman, which is just as relevant to our time as it was to Shakespeare’s.
“It’s a very timely political thriller,” she says. “No matter how much time has passed since the days of the Roman Empire or since the period when Shakespeare was writing his plays, in the late 1500s and early 1600s, the human condition never drastically changes. Politics are always happening, and the same themes tend to show up over and over.”
In addition to seven Mainstage performances, Julius Caesar will also be performed for thousands of middle and high school students from across the two Virginias during special matinees. Due to the popularity of dystopian and similarly themed literature among young adult readers, Susman chose to set Caesar in a near, dystopian future.
“Dystopian literature is one of the most popular genres among middle and high schoolers. They can easily identify with the dystopian themes of censorship, oppression, youth versus adults, restrictive society, and the emergence of a new society, that are so prevalent in those types of stories. There are lots of similar things at play in Julius Caesar. In our production, there will be a clear age divide between the characters. Caesar — a woman — is a mature adult, and Octavius, Caesar’s nephew, significantly younger, emphasizing the age divide between the ‘old guard’ and the new,” says Susman. “Moreover, the conspirators in Julius Caesar have a fear of societal restrictions that lead them down the path of a murder plot, which leads to the ultimate demise of their dream society.” Also, says Susman, like in much popular dystopian, young adult novels, no one comes out the hero.
Given that the script almost mirrors contemporary society, one must wonder what Shakespeare’s motivation was in writing about Ancient Roman history in 1599 (when it is believed that he penned the play).
“Historically, Caesar was brutal, but we’re not sure that’s what Shakespeare was addressing when he wrote the play,” she says. “It’s important to look at the time, historically, when it was written, around 1599, when England was in conflict with Spain and Ireland. It’s believed that Julius Caesar was written as an English cautionary tale about the repression of people through Catholic religion.”
Susman is comfortable taking those themes and moving them into the future. “I think it’s fair to say that we can use this as a cautionary tale, no matter where we are in history. No matter when in time we set the play, it is about the idea of a group of people who will do whatever it takes to achieve their goals, no matter the cost.”
– HashtagWV #105. September 2018.