My very first attempt at an online theatre review earlier this year was for Tim Crouch’s one man show I, Malvolio. And now, 130 reviews later (!), I’ve virtually gone full circle and am assessing I, Cinna (The Poet). I actually saw this show live at the Unicorn Theatre before the lockdown began so I was intrigued to see how it fared as a streamed/Zoomed piece. The answer is very well indeed; in fact, I’d go so far as to say I think I almost preferred the experience.
The monologue is part of an occasional series by Crouch exploring less prominent characters from the Shakespeare plays (I, Malvolio, I, Peaseblossom, I, Banquo and I, Caliban). 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 life for Cinna. The show is part character examination, part revision notes for the main play, part poetry writing masterclass, part meditation on democracy and politics. If this sounds bitty, Crouch’s script and delivery pull together the disparate parts to make a unified and fascinating whole. 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. The fact that this is a character in a state of lockdown also gives the play more resonance than it had formally.
Cinna addresses the audience directly inviting us to respond 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/computer. 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 monologue 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 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. Right at the very top 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 takes the form of jotting ideas and words down on paper, indicating thoughts by using the Zoom “hand up” function and adding responses via a Q and A facility; Crouch/Cinna then immediately responds. This cleverly demonstrates the live nature of the piece and works really well in concentrating the mind. Some verbal responses are also taken from temporarily unmuted participants and you are suddenly reminded that you’re actually (at last) a member of a real audience. At the end the audience are invited to start their cameras, a nice touch which brings everyone together.
Ultimately, we are asked to write an actual poem about Cinna’s death and, really rather daringly, nothing happens 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 an acrostic. I’m encouraged by the notion that it doesn’t matter what or how I have written (phew); it is the act of writing and making use of words which is important.
There’s an online booklet of far better efforts than mine here. This is just one example of the use to which modern technology has been put. This, the use of Zoom and the ability it gives to interact all work brilliantly and enhance the themes which are integral to the piece. During lockdown Tim Crouch’s pieces have been one of the consistent highlights and this latest addition neatly solves (almost) the problems of having a distanced audience. If you can get a ticket, you won’t be disappointed.
This Digital Theatre version of I Cinna (The Poet) is available through the Unicorn Theatre website. Click here. You will need to hurry as there only a handful of performances left. A booked ticket (which is free) is required
Alternatively you can see a video of the play (but not this particular version) by clicking here
Tim Crouch’s other solo Shakespeare pieces I, Malvolio, I, Peaseblossom and I, Banquo are listed here
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