Year of Shakespeare: I, Cinna (The Poet)AdaptationYear of Shakespeare

  • Kate McLuskie

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


I, Cinna (The Poet), Royal Shakespeare Company, written and directed by Tim Crouch, 20 June 2012 (1.30pm) at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

By Kate McLuskie, Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham

I knew this would be a special kind of show: the programme folder was almost blank and I was given a tiny pencil so that I could ‘Follow Cinna’s lead and write here’. Ah! This must be theatre for people who would not be left alone to make what they might of a play: we were going to be instructed and improved. Shakespeare was going to be accessible and relevant. We would be seeing great events, as we have done since Prufrock and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, from the position of the bit parts and we would be expected to reflect on their significance as we peered over Shakespeare’s shoulder.

Bit parts, of course, always make the most of their moment on the stage and Jude Owusu certainly made the most of his 50 minutes of solo performance. He showed us a Cinna frightened by street politics, troubled by bad dreams, hoping for freedom, building a persuasive image of the possibility that words might change the world. He was astonished to be part of history, angry at the lies and deception of politicians, sad that he could not write of love and peace, and brave as he stepped out to play his part in the main story. In the final sequence, when he imagined the shades of Caesar and Brutus after his own death and spoke to the invisible small scale casualties of civil disturbance, he turned his speech, overloaded as it was with Shakespeare quotations, into a moving reflection on the unjust ironies of history.

All the way through, Owusu made the most of a script and direction that cut him no slack:  The play, apparently, gave him ‘the chance to speak for himself and his poetry’ but it had to do so much more. Cinna the poet owes his existence to Shakespeare’s play so the script had to tell the off-stage story of Julius Caesar, give voice to Cinna’s thoughts about his art, simplify the politics of republican democracy and deliver inspiring messages about the connection between writing and freedom.  It was hard enough for Owusu to switch styles from a matey encouragement of the young audience’s writing to acting out the high drama of Caesar’s death: it was impossible to make much of Cinna’s death when the actor had to dodge round the set’s central door to play the roles of his two attackers.

And why did Cinna have to go through the business of a comic ritual reading a chicken’s entrails? To make the children squirm at the blood? To create a moment of horror when the chicken was found to lack a heart? To echo a generic version of Roman religion? Or to reach for a symbolic resonance beyond the character and his situation?  Cinna’s action speeches always had to make a claim for meaning. Language itself, as he explained in an elegant analogy, followed the model of political divisions: conjunctions were the ‘little people’, nouns the citizens, adverbs the politicians and abstractions the ‘danger words’. Like an overloaded curriculum, or an ingenious critical essay, the play’s ideas worked its actor, and its audience a bit too hard.

The RSC has a terrific reputation for its educational work based on the practice of the legendary Rex Gibson and Cis Berry. Its principle of learning ‘on your feet’, feeling the connection of words and action as a physical sensation, could have come in handy here. As it was, the words, the ideas and the action were in pretty watertight compartments. The young audience was assured that ‘we are all equal here’ and they were encouraged to start some poems by writing random words on the folders provided. But it was not long before the words made a sentence: ‘it must be by his death’. Even their writing opportunities were structured like educational best-practice. They were given the easy task of writing the name of their country, the harder task of writing the name of our leader and then the open-ended task of writing a word to describe him (adult laughter and a punch line: ‘did anyone write a bad word?’). The culmination was a silent exam when the children had to write a poem while Cinna put on his ‘dead’ make-up and intoned the passing minutes. It was all good fun: we could send the results to a web-site; there were no wrong answers. But isn’t that always what the teachers say?

For this afternoon, the Swan theatre was a class-room where the teacher had all the best lines and the children were astonishingly co-operative and obedient. They wrote the words down when asked, they shared their words with their neighbours while waiting for one school group to return for the post performance discussion, and they offered back the abstractions, ‘the danger words’, when asked what their important words were: ‘Power’ ‘War’, ‘conspiracy’; the stuff of high-rated exam answers. The children’s own questions, by contrast, showed how sharply they had engaged with the play: why did Cinna think he was a coward? Why did he have to die? Why didn’t he write about love anyway? Why did you use a fake chicken? Motivation, narrative and theatricality had caught their imagination in spite of the laboured abstract analogies between poetic and political freedom.

The best of the RSC’s educational work never deals in abstraction and never uses the stage as a platform or a pulpit. It uses the creativity of teachers and the pupils themselves to explore the plays in the best traditions of progressive pedagogy. When the children do come to watch a play, they (and their attendant adults) are inspired and delighted by such high points as the 2011 Little Angel puppet theatre Tempest or the stunning Matilda the musical, now in the West End. But that face to face, physical, creative work is costly in teacher and pupil time and is very difficult to scale up, though the company have done wonders with their Lancasterian system of cascaded teacher training. This show, by contrast, will be video-streamed into schools – thank you, Cisco systems and the Joint Academic Network (Janet). That may mean that more children experience an RSC performance than ever before; it may be an effective use of the kit that has been a priority for school funding over the last decade. It may give some teachers learning resources to supplement their own creativity. However it returns us to the teacher-knows-best learning that some of us hoped had disappeared forever. The children may end up knowing more repeatable information but I wonder if they will be moved to writing or action beyond the set classroom tasks or even to thinking independently about why they should care about Cinna the poet.

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To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.


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Author: Kate McLuskie

Kate McLuskie is Professor Emerita at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. Her principle research interest is the role of theatre and drama in early-modern culture and the impact of that drama on our own time.