Pandemic inspires Summer Shakespeare

Summer Shakespeare enters its 40th year with a production of Pandemic Julius Caesar inspired by North America’s own Ides of March.

COVID-19 has transformed the annual theatre performance into an online event, a Zoom-recorded adaptation that will be posted to the English and Writing Studies YouTube channel from Aug. 20 to 31.

Organizers made the decision in March to go virtual – coincidentally, the soothsayer in Shakespeare’s play also warned Julius Caesar to beware of mid-March.

Director Jeff Culbert’s initial hope was to perform outdoors on campus after online auditions and rehearsals took place.

“But, of course, things got more serious and we thought, we’re not going to take chances with everyone’s health. We’re going to do it all online,” he said.

Culbert’s adaptation was designed with all options in mind: he has set the play at a time of pandemic in the Roman world, which is why the characters (and actors) are speaking from self- isolation.

This is the 40thyear of Western’s Summer Shakespeare, a production of the English and Writing Studies program that has taken place on campus and in city parks. It is the longest-running outdoor summer Shakespeare in Canada.

While this year’s performance has been the most complex, there was never any question that the show would go on, said Culbert, who has written, directed and acted in scores of local stage and radio plays.

Of the 14 actors in Pandemic Julius Caesar, seven are Western students and four are Western alumni. Two are Fanshawe College students and one is an unaffiliated member of the community.

“You didn’t have to be in London to perform in the show. And, of course, you don’t have to live in London to watch the show.”

Culbert has adapted the role of Pindarus – who has a small but important part in the original play as a slave to Cassius and a chronicler of the action – who becomes narrator of a ‘documentary’ that dramatizes greatness, betrayal, friendship, leadership, nationalism and naked ambition in the Roman world.

It’s a play rife with conspiracies and intrigue and leaders making decisions based on how they might be remembered in posterity.

They’re themes that resonate with modern events, Culbert says.

“The story of Julius Caesar is really the story of a person taking over and trying to achieve one-man rule…There’s a real parallel to our times.”

The actors rehearsed via Zoom and recorded from home, with some scenes shot outdoors. The production was then edited and uploaded for a complete performance that will have a run-time of about an hour.

Culbert hopes he can eventually meet the actors in person. “Looking back, I think it could have gone really wrong. But they came through with flying colours.”

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Summer Shakespeare welcomes Milton to stage, July 2018

Western performances keep summer tradition alive, April 2016

Celebrating Shakespeare 400, April 2016