Photo by Helen Murray
I, Cinna (The Poet) Write a Revolution by Tim Crouch – Unicorn Theatre, London
Tim Crouch has developed a line in one-man shows based on characters from Shakespeare show do not get their dues. I, Cinna is his fifth and is based on the character who, perhaps, has the toughest time of all. Cinna (the poet), has a single scene in Julius Caesar in which he is mistaken for Cinna (the conspirator) and murdered by a blood-thirsty mob. He is, as Crouch puts it, in brackets. This unpromising material quickly becomes a multi-layered exploration of the power of words and writing, the influence of rumour and social media, and the question of whether the poet has a duty to be politically engaged.
Crouch’s performance as the anxious poet, who wears a ‘This is what a poet looks like’ t-shirt, is subtle and highly persuasive. He draws the audience into his attempts to write an explanation of the charged political events outside his front door as Caesar offered the crown of a republic. The small things (“Mark Antony – with no ‘h’. What’s that about?”) combine with the unstoppable flow of events that we know will lead to his death, even if he does not. As footage of street violence is projected onto a huge sheet of crumpled paper, Cinna fills a wastepaper bin with discarded drafts as he fails to find his subject.
The familiar events from Shakespeare unfold on his laptop and phone, in a manner that is both dramatic and entirely credible without straining for relevance. Cinna enjoys the Soothsayer’s online column, which warns about the Ides of March. He is amused by the reports of chaos the night before (“The graves opened up, thrusting up their dead? No way!”). Then the ‘Breaking News’ alerts start to ping, as he sees live footage of Caesar’s assassins steeping their hands in blood, and Mark Antony winning over the crowd. Cinna is a republican, and his dismay when Antony’s propaganda works propels him outside to his scripted doom.
Cinna finds his subject, but so do we. Crouch uses audience participation in a sparing but effective way, giving us all a notebook and pencil and instructing us to write. It would give away too much to say what he asks, but the audience is asked to look into its soul in a way that is surprising, and revealing. The production, directed by Naomi Wirthner, is a small masterpiece of unshowy writing and performance that is some of the best small-scale theatre of its time, equally satisfying to audiences of young people and adults. Crouch makes theatre that punches way above its weight, and I, Cinna cuts to the heart of what it is to have a voice, and to decide how to use it.