I recently attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, performed in a beautiful outdoor theater as part of Boulder’s annual Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Alongside the theater was a lovely little courtyard, perfect for a picnic on the lawn beforehand: grilled salmon with sautéed spinach; baguette with butter and goat cheese; red wine and (of course!) dark chocolate for dessert. So my friend and I sat on a blanket under a tree alongside a flower garden interspersed with small signs displaying inspiring quotes from Shakespeare’s plays, to enjoy our dinner before heading over to the theater.
I’m not really an expert on Shakespeare performances, so can offer no official critique of the performance, other than to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly. The sky in Boulder that evening was overcast — an ominous rolling black and gray — which complemented perfectly the thunder-and-lightening scenes of the play (cue: “Beware the Ides of March”) though it didn’t actually rain (or thunder and lightening), which was nice also.
Clarity Of Transmission
Considering the performance as a whole, there were two things that stood out for me: The first was the marked distinction between actors whose rendering of the dialogue — in Shakespeare’s unique idiom – was easily intelligible to my ears; and those whose delivery left me feeling unable to easily follow what was happening.
Happily, a majority of the actors fell into the previous category: something about how the words were articulated made them an effective vehicle for the delivery of the intended meaning. My ears and mind could cognize what was being transmitted. The more confusing deliveries were still enjoyable to me – when I relaxed and just enjoyed the words as music, rather that trying to construct conceptual meaning out of them. But the difference between the two really made me realize how skilled an actor must be to play a role in a Shakespeare production, and do it well.
Mirth & Joy
The second thing that stood out – and ended up being my favorite part of the experience as a whole – were the expressions on the faces of the actors during the battle scenes. We were seated close enough to see that when clashes between competing armies were rendered on stage, the actors involved wore smiles and grins on their faces: displaying clearly their enjoyment of the sword-play!
From a greater distance, I imagine that the illusion of “mortal combat” was much more seamless, with the main visual effect being the swinging of fists and knives and swords, and bodies crumbling to the stage floor. But from our vantage point the illusion was easily seen through, and what a treat it was to be part of the mirth and joy of the actors as they quite literally “played” with their stage-knives and stage-swords.
The Ground Of Spacious Neutrality
On the day following the performance, I happen to cross paths with another friend who is a professional actor specializing in the performance of Shakespeare’s plays. I mentioned my experience to him, and he shared that it’s actually quite important — when enacting the intricate choreography of a combat scene — for the actors to remain at least emotionally neutral, to pull it off without injury.
Generating a mental state and corresponding facial expressions of intense aggression, my friend relayed, can easily lead to accidents which – even with blunted stage weapons – can be quite serious. So approaching a complex fight scene with an attitude of focused playfulness is the best way to go — even if it means sacrificing the seamlessness of the illusion, for observers close enough to clearly see the actors’ facial expressions.
All Of Life’s A Stage
And so it is also (I later reflected) in our so-called “real life” … viz. things seem to work out best when we can stay connected to an undercurrent of joy — a sense of exploratory play — within love scenes and battle scenes both.
Can I engage wholeheartedly in whatever “battle” may arise, without losing touch with the inherent joy and playfulness of it all? Can I play my role – skillfully enact my dharma – in a manner that (catapulting backward from 16th century England all the way to ancient India) would make Krishna as proud of me as he was of Arjuna, there on the edge of the battlefield? Can the swords that I wield be used with the precision of the Bodhisattva Manjushri – to fiercely disembowel ignorance, with as little collateral damage as possible (i.e. no cuts or bruises from errant strikes of the blunted stage swords)?