Life of a Cinna

As dramatic characters go, Cinna the poet has a pretty rough time of it. He makes his entrance in Act Three, Scene III of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. A few lines later he’s dead, torn to pieces by an angry mob. Shakespeare, with customary mastery, takes just one incident to demonstrate how crowd hysteria can tip into mob violence.

Actor and writer Tim Crouch decided to rescue Cinna from this brief existence and give him a play of his own. The result, I, Cinna (the Poet), premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company next week, gives audiences a chance to meet the man before the murder.

“Cinna is a small person who is caught up and killed by world events,” says Crouch. “I think the play turns on that scene: without it, it would be very different play.”

In I, Cinna, we meet the poet inside his home before he makes the fatal decision to step outside. Crouch takes up Shakespeare’s seminal examination of regime change and considers it from a different perspective, encouraging young audiences (11 and over) to consider the relationship between words and action.

Taking someone else’s minor characters and giving them more substance demands a combination of detective work and audacity on the part of the writer, however. Crouch had to extrapolate from the handful of lines the character has in Julius Caesar.

“You search the text for clues,” he says. “We know he’s a bachelor. I sense he’s superstitious because he has a sense of foreboding. I try to cover as much as I can from the little clues in the play and then I go free – so I think what he might be writing about, for instance. And bits of Shakespeare come into the play. He performs an augury on a dead chicken and inside the chicken there is no heart. In Julius Caesar, Caesar orders an augury and they can find no heart in the beast. So I’m trying to make connections to the bigger stuff in Caesar but bringing it down to a very domestic level.”

For Jude Owusu, playing Cinna in both this play and the RSC’s current Julius Caesar, Crouch has helped him put meat on the bones: “He’s written a perfect back-story for me.” Cinna is not the first Shakespeare character to whom Crouch has given a louder voice. His earlier works include I, Peaseblossom (liberating the servant fairy from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), I, Caliban (imagining how Caliban feels at the end of The Tempest), I, Banquo (examining Banquo’s experience at the hands of Macbeth) and I, Malvolio, in which the much-mocked steward from Twelfth Night gives vent to his feelings.

All the works started out as children’s shows, but Crouch has found that some appeal to adults as well – particularly I, Malvolio. In Twelfth Night, the steward suffers for our entertainment, as he is tricked into wearing ghastly fashions and believing that his mistress is besotted with him. I, Malvolio is, says Crouch, “a meditation on how much an audience enjoys cruelty.”

Malvolio and Cinna join an honourable list of characters that have escaped the confines of their original drama. Most famous, perhaps, are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the courtiers from Hamlet. In Tom Stoppard’s playful, philosophical spin-off, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the two characters are centre stage, trying to puzzle out what is happening in the original drama, while Stoppard touches on questions of free will and determinism. Chris Lambert’s Edmund, Son of Gloucester examines the reasons for Edmund’s wicked behaviour in King Lear, while the playwright David Greig brings several characters back to life with Dunsinane, his sequel to Macbeth.

Some characters are so big that they simply demand more drama – Shakespeare created his own spin-off (The Merry Wives of Windsor) to accommodate the appeal of Falstaff, and the fat knight has gone on to appear in several operas and a novel by Robert Nye. Others scarcely feature in the original, yet their fate catches the imagination of subsequent writers. Howard Barker’s Seven Lears explores the reasons for the absence of the queen in King Lear. Sharman Macdonald wrote After Juliet, a drama about Rosaline, the girl we never meet but who plays such a huge part in Romeo’s daydreams until he unceremoniously drops her for Juliet. One play at this year’s Edinburgh Festival (Lady M) considers the view of the lady-in-waiting in Macbeth.

Revisiting characters is a playful act of creativity, and in I, Cinna, Crouch will invite the audience to play the game with him. All students watching will be given a pen and paper and encouraged to write poems during the piece and finally to give an account of Cinna’s death. This will take place not only during each live performance, but in hundreds of secondary schools simultaneously via an interactive webcast on July 2.

“There will be a three-minute sequence while the audience just writes,” Crouch explains. “That’s something I’ve never experienced in theatre before. I’m excited about the idea of an act of theatre triggering a parallel creative act of writing.”

He adds that pursuing one character’s experience of the drama can shed interesting light on the original play. Working on his play about Banquo, for example, he noticed that Banquo’s death is a turning point for Macbeth: “Macbeth doesn’t go mad when he kills the king. He kills his best friend and then he starts to lose it.”

Above all, he hopes that his pieces offer younger audiences routes into the original plays.

“My passion is for the stories and the characters of those plays, which I believe inform how we are now, how we talk to each other and how we can shorthand our understandings and meanings. Those archetypes are so deeply embedded in our culture. There’s a need to keep Shakespeare alive in young people’s minds.”

I, Cinna (the Poet)’, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, June 13-July 6. Webcast to schools on July

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