Rome is just down Chapel Street this term, with today’s opening of “Julius Caesar,” the first of three of Shakespeare’s “Roman” plays to come out of the Drama School this spring.
The show is part of the Yale School of Drama’s Studio Series, which coincides with Shakespeare at Yale, a semester-long celebration of the Bard’s works.
Director Ethan Heard DRA ’13 said he decided to reset the play, updating the tragedy from 44 B.C. to the modern day. The production incorporates the press, social media platforms and other modern forms of communication technology into the Elizabethan-era script.
“I have the citizens in the famous ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ scene on Facebook and Twitter, updating their statuses and commenting,” Heard said. “I’m setting [the production] in a 2012 world, which is in conversation with the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and demonstrations in Russia.”
Marissa Neitling DRA ’13, who plays a variety of roles in “Julius Caesar” including Calpurnia and Octavius Caesar, said the modern interpretation is meant to highlight the role of technology in today’s politics.
“You’ve got a lot of mob scenes in ‘Julius Caesar.’ We wanted to look at what our modern day mobs look like: how do we congregate, how do we come together as a unified force to fight for what we believe and have our voice be heard? We do that now heavily through technology,” Neitling said.
Heard said he drew inspiration for “Julius Caesar” from the 2012 presidential election and imagery such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 reacting to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. He added that the production served as an opportunity to immerse himself in the politics section of the newspaper and absorb today’s current events.
“The Yale bubble is often quite strong, especially at the Drama School, so I’m really trying to challenge my whole production team and company to become engaged in current events,” Heard said.
Heard said he was drawn to the political aspects of “Julius Caesar” and their modern-day connections from the start of the Shakespeare project. He imagined a scenario in which Antony speaks to a row of cameras from a podium, with “a pin on his lapel and perfectly coiffed hair.” As Antony delivers his persuasive speech, Heard said he projected the politician’s face onto a screen behind him.
“Shakespeare is immediate and it is of the now,” Neitling said. “It’s not old. History repeats itself. We have many Julius Caesar stories going around in the world right now, and we’re talking about the same things [Shakespeare] was years ago.”
Heard said that while the production team has been ambitious in their design for the play, they nonetheless put a heavy emphasis on Shakespeare’s original language.
The production has a smaller cast and the original text has been cut down, Heard said, as he reduced the number of characters by 20 and shortened the line count from 2,700 to 1,500. Heard added that some male characters are played by actresses.
The Studio Series is a requirement for second-year Drama School students; each production has up to 10 actors and a rehearsal time of about four weeks.
The second and third plays in the Studio Series — “Antony and Cleopatra,” directed by Margot Bordelon DRA ’13, and “Titus Andronicus,” directed by Jack Tamburri DRA ’13 — are set to open later this term. Bordelon, Heard, and Tamburri were enrolled in Directing professor Karin Coonrod’s Shakespeare class last term. Heard said he thought it would be interesting to see how audiences react to the three Roman-set plays in relation to each other, with their shared political themes.
“Julius Caesar” is showing through Saturday, Feb. 11, at the Iseman Theater on Chapel Street.