Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Me and Orson Welles: Setting Julius Caesar in 1937

Me and Orson Welles. Dir. Richard Linklater. Perf. Zac Efron, Claire Danes, and Christian McKay. 2008. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2010.

In 1937, Orson Welles directed and played Brutus in the Mercury Theatre Production of Julius Caesar.  Me and Orson Welles tells the story of that production through the eyes of a young, na├»ve actor who is swept up in Welles' charisma, genius, and vision.

The production-within-the-production is absolutely fascinating.  The modernized world of Welles' Julius Caesar is fascist and frightening.

One of its most effective scenes is Act III, scene iii:  The Death of Cinna the Poet.  At this point in the play, Caesar has been assassinated, Brutus has made his case to the pleblians, and Mark Antony has turned the crowd entirely against the conspirators and into a riotous mob (for one stunning version of Mark Antony's speech and its results, q.v.).  And Cinna the Poet decides to take a walk.  He's Cinna the Poet—not Cinna the Conspirator—and, if he has any political views at all, he seems to be opposed to the assassination of Caesar.  But his name is enough to condemn him to the mob.

Welles' production of the scene, envisioned here by Linklater's direction, is chilling.

The stage direction at the end of the scene in Shakespeare's text reads "Exeunt all the Plebeians [dragging off Cinna]."  The direction in the scene above is very understated, but, for the setting, it is all the more shocking.  It suggests a flavor of Secret Police, Enforced Disappearances, and Disappeared Persons.  The gasp we hear from the audience brings the dread of Shakespeare's scene to our own door.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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