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Edinburgh Fringe 2014

Julius Caesar in Original Pronunciation

University of Houston-Downtown, University Theatre

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare

Venue: Gryphon@WestEnd (Venue 109)


Low Down

"The University of Houston-Downtown University Theatre is performing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s original pronunciation. This dynamic cutting of the play compresses the action of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy into 85 minutes of thrilling theatre, spoken with the ultra-expressive sounds of Elizabethan dramatic speech. Come experience the action and hear the play as Shakespeare intended it to be heard."


 “How many ages hence Shall this our lofty scene be acted over In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” The men who toppled the colossal life of Julius Caesar did not speak English. They could not have read of the Germanic Anglii tribe first mentioned by Tacitus, almost a century later. They did not possess clocks, their togas had no sleeves, they did not orate from any pulpit (no matter how bully). They would have been bemused by these and many other anachronisms written into their lives by later writers including William Shakespeare.
It goes to show how stories grow in the retelling. Perspectives and outlooks shift. Fashionable tastes get bitter or grow sweet. Even Shakespeare’s plays revive and hibernate over the generations, emerging from their chrysalises varied by time and place. The intrigue of Julius Caesar speaks to us more that the pageantry of King John which meant to much to the Edwardians.
Only the texts are as immovable as the northern star (sort of). Contrary to Jonson, they are of a particular age. They are the product of a particular genius, living in a particular time, reflecting his particular hangups, expressing his particular (indeed singular) imagination. If the past is a foreign country (making Shakespeare a foreigner) isn’t right to try and master his lingo? 
Catch up with any snail-paced schoolkid and they’ll confirm, Shakespeare didn’t talk like us. So how did he sound? The study of original pronunciation (OP) has come on a pace in the decade since David Crystal became Master of reconstructing the sound of Shakespeare at the reconstructed Globe. Even so, the University of Houston Downtown (UDH) is presenting the only OP production this Fringe and their run is lamentably short.
This is not the greatest production of Julius Caesar you’re ever going to see. The properties are minimal. The acting is mixed. The sound design is basic. Charles Hutchinson’s Caesar is grave, strangely likable, but in no way affable. Dignified, semi-deified, he’s a politician who’s started to believe his own rhetoric. Andrew Maddocks as Brutus is plain and unvarnished, making it easier to follow the tyrannicide’s choice to go against the grain. His bromance with James Pendleton is compelling, sincere and affecting.
His relationship with Lindsey Ball is less heartfelt. As Portia, the soothsayer and servant, Ball is playing the entire mid-field of the foreshortened text. Along with Richard Christopher Vara (as Narrator, Merullus, Artemidorus and Strato), and also Carlo Magana (as Casca), she’s the skip in the steps required to take the giant leaps which keep the drama pacy.
Luke Fedell as Antony towers over the rest literally, and inasmuch as he is a professor at UDH, figuratively. In him is the promise and potential that this production never entirely realised. When the team reassemble for their next run at Edinburgh (and I for one seriously hope they do return) they will need to better establish this unique jewel of OP in a setting that does full credit to their extraordinary efforts and capacities.
What is wonderful in their 2014 run however, is how quickly you find yourself immersed in the unfamiliar familiarity of OP. The cast have worked long and hard to get it right. Clearly I am no expert but I began to feel as Monet might have done following his cataracts operation. Colours I have missed, patterns I didn’t see before swirl out of the mists and take form. Shakespeare’s comedy, his puns especially, sing out from unfrozen thaw.
When you’ve heard OP, can you go back? Will I be able to stifle my giggles the next time a high-falutin achhhtooor in the title role solemnly intones that “Cannot, is false, and that I dare not, falser: I will not come today”? (‘Today’ said as ‘to die’ – geddit?)