Playing Brutus

April 10, 2015

 

But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
- Julius Caesar: Act 3, Scene 1

 

Like myself, you may have heard the echo of a Joni Mitchell tune when you read the first line of that quote. Julius Caeasar can be like that; layers upon layers of words and phrases that have made their way in to every day speech. So much so, that it may seem a bit pithy in this day and age. How about a book (and movie) title:

 

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars...
- Cassius: Act 1, Scene 2

 

If not just words, then ideals. The tapestry of the play is woven in the crux of the seminal Western case study of politics, society, and civil war: the rise and fall Roman Empire. We’re still learning lessons from the Romans even today, as parallels are drawn over and over again in contemporary times. We know know that Shakespeare got some of it right, while taking quite a few creative liberties for literary convenience.

 

...How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown?
- Cassius: Act 3, Scene 1

 

The play is, at once, deep in revelations of character while also being shallow in the unnatural speed through which those characters set upon their individual courses of action and, subsequently, are delivered to their fates. We meet the tragic hero of the play, Brutus, at his personal precipice of action and then, in what seems like a blink of an eye, with destruction, civil war and a healthy dose of karma, he is delivered by Mr. Shakespeare to his end.

 

...By his change or by ill officers,
hath given me some worthy cause to wish
things done, undone.
- Brutus: Act 4, Scene 2

 

For me, the experience of Julius Caesar has been one of the most meaningful acting lessons I have received in my adult life. It has reminded me of things I have long forgotten, or have lost in complacency, and it has humbled me to the core by showing me many, many things I have yet to learn.

 

My name is Jonathan Clausen, and I play the role of Brutus in Pigeon Creek Shakespeare’s production of Julius Caesar. The opportunity to play this role, even once in a lifetime, has been on my bucket list for quite some time - as it is for many an actor. As we enter the final two weeks of performances of the play my thoughts continue to digest just much I have learned as an actor from the opportunity to play Brutus.

 

Words before blows, is it so, countrymen?
- Brutus: Act 5, Scene 1

 

The unfamiliar and formal, to our ears, language of Shakespeare is seductive to an actor, but also dangerous as resting upon it and the verse makes it all too easy to defer strong character choices in favor of letting the language do brunt of the actor’s work. For some fans of the Bard, this is acceptable - they attend to out of a desire to hear that which they love to read spoken (and, if they are fortunate, spoken well).

 

We know relatively little about the specific details of how Shakespeare’s works were acted in his time, but we can surmise this, based on the norms of performing in Elizabethan theatres: the actors had to work ver hard to keep their audiences’ attention. I’ll make an assumptive leap, then, in saying that bold character choices probably played a part in those attention-getting tactics.

 

This is the challenge Shakepeare - especially so with the tragedies - provides for the contemporary actor - or at least has provided for me: One may choose to speak prettily with passion and few might know the difference, but the ability to completely inhabit the words of one of the Bard’s characters throughout will likely leave your work as an actor changed for every role, classic or contemporary, yet to be performed.

 

Now I have taken heart, thou vanishest.
Ill spirit, I would hold more talk with thee!
- Brutus: Act 4, Scene 2

 

My personal lesson, in this endeavor to discover the character of Brutus, has been that connecting with the intent - not just the music - of the words, when done to the best of my ability, should leave me thoroughly exhausted. I haven’t always hit the mark in every moment of every run but, when I do, I discover all sorts of new truths about Brutus that weren’t known to me before.

 

There are just four performances remaining in our run: three at Dog Story Theater in Grand Rapids, and one in Spring Lake. With that in mind, I’ll make a promise to you:

Attend one of those performances and I will do my best bring to you all that I know, all that I have discovered, and all that I can discover of Brutus, up to that moment. Because, you see, very few roles which an actor receives the opportunity to play allow for that kind of discovery and re-discovery — or, perhaps, we just don’t take advantage of opportunities when they are there.

 

...O Rome, I make thee promise,
If the redress will follow, thou receivest
Thy full petition at the hand of Brutus.
- Brutus: Act 2, Scene 1

 

See you at the theatre.

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