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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.


I, Cinna (The Poet)
Royal Shakespeare Company and YouTube   January 2022

Tim Crouch's monologue, here performed by Jude Owusu, was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2012, and has been revived several times since, as well as being restaged for this video version.

It spins off from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in several directions for several purposes. Bits and pieces serve one or another goal, but the clash of modes, moods and intentions ultimately creates a jumble that does full justice to none.

At its base, the piece takes the Tom Stoppard approach of looking at Shakespeare through the eyes of a minor character.

Cinna The Poet has one short scene in Julius Caesar: wandering out on the street just after Marc Antony has inflamed the mob, he is attacked and killed because he has the same name as one of the conspirators.

To Shakespeare Cinna is the ultimate innocent bystander, a symbol of how chaotic things have become. Crouch takes him someplace(s) else, starting with the simple novelty of watching the tragedy from the fringes.

Hiding from the demonstrations and riots outside, this Cinna (in an amusing anachronism) watches the news on television and reacts to it.

(In the 1950s an American television series called You Are There put modern TV news reporters in various historical settings, including the assassination of Caesar, and this play has some of the same easy-history-lesson feel to it.)

But Crouch goes further. He raises the question of whether keeping apart from current events, as his Cinna does, is a wise kind of purity or civic irresponsibility. Typically he doesn't answer his own question, because he's really goading the audience to think about it.

Appropriately, Cinna The Poet is interested in language, and another strand of his monologue wonders about the power of words. In sudden bursts of interactivity he calls on his audience to find a piece of paper and write down certain words, because turning them into physical objects will make them more real. (In this screen version, animated scraps of paper appear and are written on.)

At two points Cinna stops the play dead to assign a piece of homework to the audience. Take a minute to write down something you'd die for and something you'd kill for. Take three minutes to write down what Cinna must have felt when the mob attacked him.

And we suddenly realise that on one level this has all been a theatre-in-schools teaching exercise that has somehow accidentally wandered into a real theatre.

With each of those different strands comes a different tone and performances style. As directed by the playwright, Jude Owusu makes the Cinna who is watching the news excited, frightened and overwhelmed by the sense of history happening around him, while the Cinna who is fascinated by words is lost in his own enjoyable thoughts and the Cinna assigning writing tasks to his audience has the slightly creepy talking-down tone of a TV children's presenter or library story lady.

It may well be that children and young teens will respond to the story-telling and the two-way experience one newspaper critic devoted his entire review to describing his ten-year-old being gradually drawn into it.

But adults are likely to find the disparate intentions, approaches, styles and tones clashing too much for the whole to be satisfying.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review of I Cinna The Poet 2022