In what is perhaps the ultimate show of life imitating art, our picnic under the stars at Fort Canning was met with threatening bolts of lightning and ominous clouds, just as the unfolding of Julius Caesar entered the iconic storm scene in the first Act.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, spoiler alert (and more to come): Caesar had just defeated the rival troops of Pompey, and he is welcomed back to a scene of cheering citizens at R.O.M.E. to be crowned king. But as the nasty weather portends, things would quickly turn sour at the hands of political conspirator Cassius – and complicitly, Brutus – who hatches an assassination plot to rid of the dictatorship that is Caesar.
The real spoiler here, however, is not the above literature lesson on Shakespeare storytelling. It is the stark remembrance that every day, we have to live with the unsettling uncertainties of political turmoil and digital spread of misinformation, as underlined by Singapore Repertory Theatre’s (SRT) modern adaptation of Julius Caesar.
So it is fitting that on SRT’s return this year, it opted for a political thriller to be staged.
After a one year hiatus due to flagging budget, the Shakespeare In The Park production has been brought back to much fanfare to the credit of Save Our Shakespeare crowd funders and staunch SRT supporters. It promises a spectacular performance while you lay down your picnic mats, sip on a glass of champagne and untether from the real world. From there, the assembly of world leaders of the fictitious R.O.M.E. (inspired by today’s G7, United Nations and ASEAN) would take over and charm-offend you into a bloody world of ugly ambitions, shrewd manipulations and messy politicking.
Then again, isn’t this is a story that we already know so well, with or without literature lessons? This is why.
Politicians? They’re Not Who You Think They Are.
Many scenes from the performance flit between the characters’ private suites and the public arena. From there, we often see an internal struggle of the self being played out. Caesar, believing herself (yes, it’s a her, more on that below) to be as infallible as the citizens deem her to be, soldiers on to a certain death at the conspirators’ meeting despite being pleaded by Calpurnia to stay home.
Brutus (played by Ghafir Akbar), believing himself to be Mr Honour, Dignity and Virtue, participates in the assassination for the betterment of Rome, despite enjoying a close personal friendship with Caesar.
When we think about all the impeachable wrongdoings, corruption, scandals, family squabbles and un-president-like tweets that have besmirched world leaders and ministers in today’s context – highly esteemed men and women that the people have put good faith in – ‘what you see is not what you get’ has never rang truer.
The Social Media Plague
Kudos to SRT, for cleverly weaving in the press in place of R.O.M.E. plebeians, along with the strip of LED screen on set for sporadic ‘breaking news’ segments. In terms of the mise en scene, it is ‘modern adaptation’ done right, to bring out the gravity of the political climate. In terms of the rhetoric, it is hard to ignore the fact that we, not unlike the R.O.M.E. people, are being assailed by a scourge of sensationalised news and distorted truths online to sway public sentiments.
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We’ll never find out if that holds up for Caesar, who gets slaughtered somewhat early in the play. But we did find out the true selves of Cassius and co and what they really stood for: ambition, greed, treason and power.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of ambition to further one’s standing in life, it is the means of execution, as well as the resulting power abuse upon success, that modern day leaders can’t seem to resist. Depending on who you look at – presidents, ex-presidents, orators, big time producers, famous celebrities – it manifests itself in different forms. And in their downfall, there is really no fault in the stars but in themselves.
In a bold move by SRT, the titular character in Julius Caesar is played by a female cast. Jo Kukathas, who is an actor, writer and director of The Instant Café Theatre Company in KL, reprises the role remarkably. Yet, we can’t help but feel the full brunt of the irony.
When it comes to the political stage or the media sphere, women are no longer afraid to speak up and they are wielding a greater voice like never before – thanks to recent developments in the empowerment drive. But like we said, Caesar gets killed rather quickly. That ‘greater voice’ gets snuffed out fast. It prompts the question: in the movement to gain even more ground over gender stereotypes and attain a position of power, is that a message that women are only being put back in their place after all?
Catch ‘Shakespeare in the Park — Julius Caesar’ at Fort Canning Park, which runs from now till 27 May 2018. The performance begins at 7.30pm.