Vogue View: Can Art Imitating Real Life Cross The Line?
A production of Julius Caesar closed in New York last week following a run rife with controversy over its portrayal of the infamous dictatorial title role bearing a distinct likeness to the US president (right down to a sharp suit, strawberry-blonde comb-over and Melania-esque wife). Like many new adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, it brings a centuries-old play into the modern age and translates a historical story into a contemporary political and cultural framework. However, this particular depiction awoke the wrath of the rightwing over the gory assassination scene – the very same scene, incidentally, that has appeared in performances since the Bard penned the play at the turn of the 17th century (and, of course, that represents the Roman general’s real-life bloody demise circa 44BC). The umbrage taken was so furious that it resulted in several performances being interrupted by raging protesters, the loss of major sponsorship from Delta and the Bank of America, and – in horrendous hypocrisy – death threats sent to director Oskar Eustis and his family, reports the New York Post.
Despite this, the cast and production team refused to bow to the furore and a spokesperson for the Central Park theatre refuted the suggestion that the show advocates violence towards anyone, saying: “Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save.” Interestingly, the same offence wasn’t taken when The Royal Shakespeare Company set the play in Africa, evoking civil war and dictatorships on the continent, or when a production starred an Obama-like Caesar assassinated by right-wing conspirators. The question is raised though: can creative representations of real life go too far?
On our screens on Sunday nights at the moment is the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Though fictional, many of the themes are disturbingly reminiscent of present day issues – from reproductive rights, to state control over a women’s right to make decisions about her body, and female genital mutilation. Challenging to watch, but few can deny the power of the parallels drawn with the realities being lived out across the world, and the stark warnings that they bring to light.
From protest anthems to political artwork, art has always been a way for the less powerful to challenge the most, where huge institutions can be examined, opposed and mocked. The importance of having a metaphorical and literal stage where the Davids can take on the Goliaths is as acute now as it has ever been.
That isn’t to say that it isn’t deeply uncomfortable at times. Take Channel 4’s 2009 mockumentary The Execution Of Gary Glitter, in which the fallen-from-grace pop star and convicted sex offender, played by Hilton McRae, is hanged in a parallel Britain where capital punishment has been reintroduced. I remember barely being able to watch the excruciating final scene – made all the more so with the knowledge that the character you’re watching on their way to their fictional death is a real person. But the bigger picture is that these characterisations bring information to the forefront of your consciousness, and they provoke discussion and debate.
Anything creative is subjective and open to interpretation. It can and should be looked at with a critical eye, but it shouldn’t be censored or silenced. As the stage manager told the actors in Julius Caesar last week following an audience disruption, “let’s pick it up from ‘liberty and freedom'”. Let’s indeed.