Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat — Robert Frost
Mention the term “audience participation” to many a theatre goer and it will often produce a faint look of horror that we might have to get ourselves directly involved in proceedings. Unthinkable – we are there to watch rather than participate, aren’t we? The technique is a staple of panto of course and very often theatre for young people will use it to engage and enthuse. Thus, it is entirely appropriate that Tim Crouch’s show I, Cinna (The Poet) is being staged at London’s premier children’s theatre, the Unicorn.
First commissioned by the RSC and performed in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2012 it is a piece that I was aware of and had long wanted to see so this is a welcome revival. Part of a series of shows by Crouch exploring characters from the Shakespeare plays (I, Caliban….I, Peaseblossom, etc.) this one centres on the unfortunate minor player in Julius Caesar who is mistaken for one of the conspirators with the same name and is summarily torn limb from limb by an angry mob. He is, quite simply an unfortunate victim and is, perhaps, Shakespeare’s unluckiest character. From the 13 lines he has in the play, Crouch has conjectured a whole existence for Cinna and, himself, brings it to life in an hour’s performance that stimulates and provokes.
Part character examination, part revision notes for the main play, part poetry writing masterclass, part meditation on democracy and politics, Crouch’s script and delivery pull together the disparate parts to make a unified and fascinating evening. This is never more the case than when clear parallels are vividly drawn between ancient Rome and modern Western society; these parallels are enhanced by occasional video footage showing civil unrest which punctuate the action.
Cinna addresses the audience directly inviting us to respond both verbally and, more importantly, in writing to the ideas which he raises. He seems alternately fascinated and disgusted by the power politics of Brutus, Mark Antony and so forth and we are given a citizen’s eye view of the events of Shakespeare’s play as Cinna reframes the narrative mediated through “breaking news” events on his mobile phone. He also tells us of his constant dreams and how his fears for the future seem to be coming true. In one rather grisly scene (vegetarians please take note) he disembowels a realistic looking chicken in order to take the augury. Eventually he finds himself unable to ignore unfolding events and is drawn into the street where the tragic events occur; a clever coda (no spoilers) brings the evening to a punchy close.
In Crouch’s pitch perfect performance Cinna is portrayed as a cautious man of thought who wonders if he could do more to alter the flow of big events and whether his poetry could or should be used to that end. He has a bad case of writer’s block and political disengagement, but an innate contained energy breaks free when he discusses the power and hierarchy of language encouraging us to think of communication as a mirror image of society. Thus, at the bottom level he posits there are “slave words” – words such as in, at, but, of. They do all the heavy lifting but are relatively powerless. Next are the “citizen” words/nouns and above these the “ruling elite”/adjectives and verbs. Above all are these are the “dictator” words e.g. God or Hell. As Cinna/Crouch wryly observes, these are the ones that cause all the trouble.
Audience participation appropriately, yet unusually, takes the form of jotting ideas and words down in a mini exercise book – this novel idea really concentrates the mind. At one point we are asked to write down a single word which sums up our current leader – Mr Johnson might be interested to know that, particularly among the younger members of the audience, the results were not flattering. Disarmingly we are then encouraged to think about whether we should eradicate these words in case they may be used against us in the future. As audience engagement goes it is both thought provoking and slightly chilling.
Ultimately, we are asked to write an actual poem about Cinna’s death and, really rather daringly, nothing happens onstage for five minutes while we do so. In that sense the audience members provide their own individually crafted climax to the piece – a truly unique experience. After the curtain call the audience are invited to share their work online … so here’s my attempt at a quick haiku –
Cinna, the poet
Dreaming, questions, is questioned
Wrong man/place/time – silence!
I’m highly encouraged by the notion that it doesn’t matter what or how I have written. It is the act of writing and making use of words which is important.
Aimed at 11-14 year olds there is more than enough in this piece to engage older age ranges, preferably with some knowledge of Shakespeare’s original. I Cinna (the Poet) is both commended and recommended.