Jonathan Epstein’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s 'Julius Caesar' shatters cliché in the FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s latest streaming production.
Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” has been performed for centuries. The play has been adapted and adopted to death. Over the years, a set of conventional clichés has congealed around it. Those clichés make it all too easy — on both sides of the stage. Theater troupes get a lazy, paint-by-numbers approach. Theatergoers who have never seen the play think they already know it. And seeing the play with fresh eyes becomes next to impossible. But Jonathan Epstein does. He’s a writer, a director and a teaching professor at the Asolo Conservatory. And he takes “Julius Caesar” apart and puts it back together in his latest adaptation. It’s the Asolo Conservatory’s latest streaming production — and there’s no hint of cliché at all. What was Epstein thinking? We asked. Epstein answered in the following conversation.
I’ve read your adaptation of “Julius Caesar” — and I’ve never read anything like it. You do non-traditional gender casting, including making Caesar a woman. You consolidate some characters and divide others. Why’d you take this approach?
I had two main reasons — reflecting my two main jobs. As a writer and director, I had to produce a play worth watching. As an educator, I had to give my advanced acting students enough worthy material to work on. Some characters were too small; I fused those roles together. Some characters were larger than life; I broke them up into different characters. As a result, each student got a challenging part.
What was that like for the acting students? I assume they rose to the challenge.
The students struggled at first, because they were essentially going from being video engineers to actors without any transition. Eventually, we arrived at a procedure that involved setting up the shot and rehearsing, then taking a short break to prepare mentally and emotionally, and only then shooting the scene. That worked much better.
I assume the video production was similar to “Twilight.”
The big difference between this and “Twilight” is that, while “Twilight” was all solo shots, “Caesar” has virtually no solo shots at all. Every scene but one involved several performers, who were shooting their green-screened scenes in as many as five locations at once. We used Zoom to allow communication between actors, directors, and the stage manager, but we shot the scenes individually on iPhones, using detailed slate information (Act Three, Scene Two, Camera Four, Take Three, etc.). This allowed the editor to coordinate five or more different shots. We shot the scenes simultaneously, but given Zoom’s intrinsic delay, we used separate non-Zoom recordings for the actual product. We shot the crowd scenes outside, with as many as seven cameras working simultaneously, because the actors couldn’t all be in the same shot without grouping too closely together.
What was your reasoning as a director and adapter?
Getting to the heart of the play itself. Getting rid of our tired, second-hand notions about this play. I think people make the problems of “Caesar” simpler than they actually are.
What’s your understanding?
It’s complicated—and at the same time, it’s not. Shakespeare’s plays are typically filled with subplots. That’s true for Anthony and Cleopatra, King Lear, even “Macbeth.” But it’s not true for “Julius Caesar.” Shakespeare drastically simplified his source material — Plutarch’s “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.” What’s interesting to me is what he left out. And what he changed.
Many things. Caesar’s last words. Every schoolboy knows them. What were they?
“Et tu, Brute?” But I assume that’s a trick question.
It is. Caesar’s actual dying words were in Greek. “You too my son!” The quote is well-recorded. But Shakespeare wanted to write a political play, not an Oedipal play, so he changed the quotation. Do you know where Cleopatra was when Caesar died?
I have no idea, officer. Wherever she was, I was someplace else.
Cleopatra was in Rome. She’s the most glamorous woman who ever lived! That’s a juicy detail. What Hollywood producer could resist it? But Shakespeare omitted it. Why?
He didn’t want to confuse the issue.
That’s exactly right. He wanted to focus the issue.
Let’s get back your approach to character. Cassius, for instance. There’s only one Cassius in Shakespeare’s original text — Caius Cassius. You carved him into two characters. But they’re two different people, not two sides of the same person.
Correct. I’ve split him into two characters: Tertia Cassius and Caius Cassius. Where they might have a soliloquy in the original, in this version they’re two people who argue with each other.
But that argument draws from Shakespeare’s text, where Cassius was originally one character. The fragmentation was already there.
Yes, although I’d call it “complication” rather than “fragmentation.” And it’s not my invention. Shakespeare’s major characters always have multiple, often contradictory views.
They’re the opposite of one-note characters.
Yes. Their minds are often divided. A soliloquy we might label a “monolog” is often an argument they’re having with themselves.
Well, Cassius, as I mentioned. But Anthony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral is the classic example. He says, “When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff. Yet Brutus says he was ambitious. And Brutus is an honorable man.” It’s fine rhetoric, but what was Anthony driving at? What’s the English 101 interpretation?
The Cliff Notes interpretation is sarcasm. “Brutus is an honorable man.” In other words, “Brutus is an honorable man. Yeah, right.” Anthony is cleverly riling up the crowd.
That’s the conventional assumption. But look at Anthony’s speech from a different perspective. Think of it as authentic dialectic, not mockery. What if it wasn’t rhetorical trickery? If Anthony were sincere, how would that change the meaning of the speech?
He’d be arguing with himself.
Yes. When Anthony says, “Brutus is an honorable man,” he believes it. Or part of him wants to. Another part doesn’t. Brutus called Caesar ‘ambitious’ — and Anthony can see with his own two eyes that it’s not true. But how could this ‘honorable man’ lie? Anthony is wrestling with that contradiction.
It’s cognitive dissonance. I get it. Anthony’s mind is divided. In your adaptation, you express that as two debating Anthonies. One believes in Brutus’ honor; the other doesn’t. You changed the argument’s form. But it already existed in the play.
It’s really the key argument of the play.
And how would you define it?
That’s the real puzzle. The answer is fairly obvious — but not to contemporary eyes.
Mine included. Give me a hint?
What’s the basic modern assumption concerning assassinations?
They’re always a conspiracy.
Assassination is always … bad?
Right. It’s hardly ever mentioned — but ancient Romans didn’t regard political assassination as unethical. Not at all. If it was politically justified, it wasn’t even illegal.
That’s new to me. Really?
Really. There’s a passage in Cicero’s “Catiline Orations.” To paraphrase, he wrote that Rome had gone to the dogs. Why? In the good old days, when a politician behaved badly, you went to his house and killed him. Today’s Romans are shirking their duty. Cicero wasn’t being funny. Assassination was, in fact, a Roman virtue.
So … maybe Caesar deserved it? And Brutus did his duty?
Wow. I’ve always assumed Caesar was the shining noble ruler and Brutus and the assassins were the bad guys. Should I set that aside when I watch your adaptation?
You probably should.
Did Shakespeare feel that Caesar’s assassination was justified?
Oh, yes. I think he did. That comes through in one of Brutus’ speeches. It’s not the best speech. It’s kind of awkward, intellectually. You sense that Brutus is talking himself into an unpleasant, but necessary, task. Off the top of my head — “The quarrel will bear no color for the thing he is … but augmented would run to these extremities.” In other words, Caesar hasn’t done anything yet to make us want to kill him. But he will.
It’s a preemptive assassination.
Yes. And that’s the thing about preemptive assassinations. If the assassin succeeds, nobody ever knows what they’d prevented. Think about Hitler. The assassination attempt of 1944 was far too late. But what if someone had killed Hitler in 1932 or ’33? The Nazi atrocities would’ve never happened. And the world would never know.
Christopher Hitchens actually gets into that … Hitler had an anecdote in “Mein Kampf.” Hitler had a lousy job as a day laborer in Weimar Germany. He was way up on a scaffold — and ranting about unions and socialists —to two badass workers from a socialist union. They gave him a choice. Shut up and quit. Or we’ll push you off the scaffold. Hitler shut up and quit. Hitchens wondered if the workers ultimately came to regret “not pushing the little bastard off.” They didn’t, obviously.
Obviously. But who knows how many potential Hitlers got what they deserved?
Who knows? Uh … you’re not arguing for political assassination, are you?
No. But I think Shakespeare was. But that’s really not the central question of “Julius Caesar.” The assassins succeeded. Caesar is dead. It’s no longer a question.
So … what’s the question?
What do we do now? For the Romans of this play, that’s the only question. We want to mourn Caesar. But we know he behaved badly. What do we do? The choice they ultimately made was horrific.
Civil war. It’s the worst possible outcome.
Who’s to blame?
Nobody, everybody. The characters all do their best — but Rome still goes to hell. That’s why it’s a tragedy.
But why did it all go to hell?
Somehow, in the grief, shock and energy of the moment, Anthony (or the Anthonies) provoked the crowd into this highly destructive action. Their speech could’ve healed matters and settled the crowd down. But they stuck the knife in, and poured salt in the wound. The result was the fulfillment of the prophecy of blood in the nation’s capitol.
That’s oddly timely.
Yes, it is.