Friends, Winnipeggers, countrymen, lend me your ears.
Shakespeare in the Ruins is celebrating its 20th birthday with Julius Caesar, the Bard's blood-stained study of power politics, betrayal and assassination. The historical drama has been around for more than 400 years but is only now getting its first professional production in this city. The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre has never staged it and no one remembers ever seeing it done here.
"It's odd because it's far more accessible than a lot of Shakespeare's plays," says Sarah Constible, who pitched the idea to do it and is directing the SIR outdoor presentation opening tonight in St. Norbert. "It's a very clear script. People say what they mean and there's not a lot of poetry in it. It's weird there's all this death and destruction, that's usually a draw."
You might not have seen Julius Caesar live or studied it in high school, but you certainly have quoted it as it contains some of the most famous lines ever spoken in English. If you have never asked to borrow the ears of your countrymen, you might have uttered, "it was Greek to me," or "Beware the Ides of March," or "Et tu, Brute?" All are lines from Julius Caesar.
"There is a 'greatest hits' of quotations in there," says actor Steven Ratzlaff, who is portraying the title character. "I was surprised by how many."
Shakespeare tells the true story of the 44 BC conspiracy against the dictator Julius Caesar, his murder by Roman senators and the defeat of the conspirators at the Battle of Philippi.
In a bid for added contemporary resonance, Constible shifts the action from toga-era Rome to turbulent Montreal during the October Crisis of 1970, when then-Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau invoked the first peacetime use of the War Measures Act in response to bombings and kidnappings by the separatist Front de liberation du Quebec.
"I wanted to set it in a more modern time," says Constible, a busy actress who this season appeared in Gone With the Wind (Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre), The Penelopiad (RMTC Warehouse) and The Swearing Jar (Prairie Theatre Exchange). "It's timely any time, but I wanted it to be in an area closer to home for our audience because I wanted to show that people are capable of making moral compromises."
She wasn't even born when British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Deputy Premier Pierre Laporte were kidnapped, the Canadian military was called in, civil liberties were suspended and 453 nationalists and leftists were rounded up and jailed without charge. It was the worst terrorist attack Canada has ever seen.
"When I saw photos of soldiers and tanks in the streets, it was quite shocking to me," says Constible, who made her SIR debut as an actor in Richard III in 1999. "You don't see that in Canada. I grew up thinking Trudeau was this cool guy, and I still think he is, but I also think with the War Measures Act he went over the top and put a crimp in civil liberties."
She wanted audiences to see the parallels between politicians like Brutus, the well-meaning but misguided assassin, and Trudeau, who famously answered a reporter who asked him how far would he go to defeat the FLQ with, "Just watch me." Both were motivated by a desire to protect their political systems but it backfired on both of them. Trudeau, a strong proponent of civil liberties, was forever tainted for imposing the War Measures Act.
"They wanted to protect their people and their actions end up costing their people far more," Constible says. "Any time there is an act of violence, the ripple effect always shows it wasn't a good idea. It's not the best way to effect change."
In 1970, Ratzlaff was living in Edmonton, where his father Raymond was a cabinet minister so politics were of particular interest. At the time he was enamoured with Trudeau for his imperious interaction with political opponents and the press.
"He was popular, charismatic with people, but was quite arrogant, intellectual and ambitious," says Ratzlaff, who is making his debut outdoors with SIR. "All of that was also true of Julius Caesar."