In Jeff Goldberg's production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, an examination of the human cost of politics

We're trying to show how a bulking ambition for power, a thirst for one’s own advancement leads to the death and hurting of many people, says Jeff Goldberg of his upcoming production of Julius Caesar

Aarushi Agrawal March 13, 2020 10:47:24 IST
In Jeff Goldberg's production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, an examination of the human cost of politics
  • Director Jeff Goldberg upcoming production is a faithful production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

  • In the play, as leaders are embroiled in conflict, the people who have suffered the most are the common citizens.

  • Today, as the world over leaders encourage an aggressive, divisive politics, this human cost is what Goldberg thought was potent to highlight,

A furious mob has taken to the streets. They’re out, with sticks and firebrands, to kill anyone they consider an enemy of the State. They spot a man walking by the side of the road and begin questioning him about his identity and where he’s going. He’s a poet who, unfortunately, shares his name with a conspirator on the mob’s enemy list. The mob starts closing in. He explains as clearly as he can that he is a poet, not the conspirator. But logic never worked with a blood-thirsty mob. ‘Tear him for his bad verses,’ says a citizen from within the mob. And they do.

This mob is venting the murder of their leader Julius Caesar, in a play by William Shakespeare. While their frenzy has now led to the murder of Cinna the Poet, earlier in the play, the mob was celebrating Caesar’s assassination after the conspirators — including Cassius and Brutus — explained their motives. The conspirators were concerned that in time, Caesar would accept the crown and abuse his power. They wanted to prevent a shift from the Roman Republic to a Roman Empire. The crowd understands, and agrees. ‘This Caesar was a tyrant,’ says one citizen. ‘We are blest that Rome is rid of him,’ says another.

Even still, they listen to the following speech, this time by Mark Antony. He displays Caesar’s bloody body, begins with ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,’ which is among the play’s most stirring speeches, and informs them about Caesar’s will where he distributes a sizeable portion of his fortune among the citizens. Soon, public opinion has swayed and they are convinced of Caesar’s nobility. Furious about his assassination, they take to the streets, to kill every conspirator they can find.

“While we think of them as hard and fast, almost as facts, political beliefs are like any beliefs. Beliefs are emotional. And emotions are fluid. And I think that the mob and the citizens are fluid,” says director Jeffrey Goldberg in an interview with Firstpost, as he prepares to stage the play at Mumbai’s Royal Opera House. The mob is certainly influenced by emotional speeches and acting out of anger, but Goldberg doesn't perceive it as being either stupid or irrational. The mob is, in fact, similar to citizens today, and wants to believe primarily in whatever it thinks will be best for the people. “They want the leader who they think is going to deliver the greatest good to them as a society,” the director adds.

However, Shakespeare leaves his audience with a certain ambiguity about these leaders. If given the crown, Caesar might have been corrupted and abused his power. Brutus’ intentions in killing Caesar were entirely noble, but eventually, hints of his personal ambition also appear.

As the leaders of their country are embroiled in conflict and a power struggle, at the end of the play — a veritable tragedy — the people who have suffered the most are the common citizens.

In Jeff Goldbergs production of Shakespeares Julius Caesar an examination of the human cost of politics

The Last Senate of Julius Gaius Caesar by Raffaele Gianetti. Facebook/Julius-Gaius-Caesar.

Today, as leaders the world over encourage an aggressive, divisive politics, and the free press which should inform about these leaders is increasingly muzzled, this human cost is what Goldberg thought was potent to highlight. “What we’re trying to show is that this bulking ambition for power, this thirst for one’s own advancement, all leads to the death and hurting of many people,” says Goldberg about staging among Shakespeare’s most political plays. “And what the stage allows you to do is see what violence and the possibility of violence really, actually looks like,” he adds.

Through the play, Goldberg wants people to reconsider where our resources are being invested. “Aren’t we capable of using our thoughtfulness and our technology for something a little bit better than constantly destroying ourselves?” He wants society at large to realise that as a result of a few people’s decisions, numerous real people get hurt. “In the 21st century, are we really still willing and prepared to go with guns before humanity? Don’t we have so much more to offer to each other if we sit down and talk rather than if we go out and get our weapons? And that’s the question of the play,” he says.

Theatrically, to aid the communication of this idea are Shakespeare’s script, a set designed according to 44 BC Rome, full Roman costumes, and a regal soundscape. For the larger, epic set pieces, Goldberg is using 18th- and 19th-century Western classical music, including Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Mozart. And for the more intimate scenes, he has found contemporary Roman music by the group Synaulia. “[It’s the] actual music that the people in the play would have listened to in their own time,” he says.

To conceptualise the play, Goldberg first spent 18 months steeped in research. The history, myths, stories, legends, religion, society, and politics are all things about the play’s world of which Goldberg wanted a first-hand understanding. His reading included Homer’s Odyssey and The Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, and several books about ancient philosophy and the antiquity. “I wanted to make sure that I knew this world as well as an ancient Roman could possibly have known it. Because it is very important for the context of the play that the people on stage and director understand the world and the stage that they are inhabiting,” explains Goldberg.

And while he’s aware that several among his audience will have read the play, especially since it has been taught in school syllabi, he is of the opinion that this is not the ideal way to encounter the Bard. “William Shakespeare is meant to be seen, to be performed. And that’s what we’re really excited about, being able to finally stage this classic and show people what it really looks like,” he says.

In Jeff Goldbergs production of Shakespeares Julius Caesar an examination of the human cost of politics

The cast of Goldberg's Julius Caesar. Facebook/JeffGoldbergStudio.

The Jeff Goldberg Studio production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar will premiere at Mumbai’s Royal Opera House on 14 March. More information here.

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