Saturday 20 January 2018

Trump-like Caesar just tu Brute for theatre's big sponsors

Gregg Henry, centre, portrays Donald Trump in the role of Julius Caesar, with Tina Benko, far left, as Melania Trump in the role of Caesar's wife Calpurnia (The Public Theatre/AP)
Gregg Henry, centre, portrays Donald Trump in the role of Julius Caesar, with Tina Benko, far left, as Melania Trump in the role of Caesar's wife Calpurnia (The Public Theatre/AP)

New York's Public Theatre is refusing to back down over its production of Julius Caesar that portrays a Donald Trump-like dictator in a business suit and long tie who gets stabbed to death on stage.

Delta Air Lines and Bank of America have pulled their sponsorship of the Public's version of the play, but in a statement the theatre said it stood behind the production.

It said its staging "provoked heated discussion" but "such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theatre; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy".

The play's director Oskar Eustis delivered a statement before Monday night's performance, which he urged audience members to record on their mobile phones.

He said neither Shakespeare nor the non-profit Public Theatre could "possibly advocate violence as a solution to political problems, and certainly not assassination".

Other defenders included Scott Stringer, the New York City comptroller, who wrote letters to the heads of Delta and Bank of America arguing that dropping their support "sends the wrong message".

He told them: "Art matters. The First Amendment matters. Expression matters" and enclosed copies of the play.

"I hope you enjoy it - it is a classic, in any age," he wrote.

The modern-day Caesar's violent death at the hands of conspirators comes not long after comedian Kathy Griffin was widely condemned for posing for a photograph in which she gripped a bloodied rendering of the US president's head.

Though the Public's version of William Shakespeare's classic play is unchanged from its 400-year-old original, the production portrays Caesar with a gold bathtub and a pouty Slavic wife.

Mr Trump's name is never mentioned, but the backlash was swift.

On Sunday, Donald Trump Jr retweeted a Fox News story about the play and wrote: "I wonder how much of this 'art' is funded by taxpayers? Serious question, when does 'art' become political speech & does that change things?"

Delta responded by saying "artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste".

Bank of America said the Public chose to present the play "to provoke and offend" without the bank's knowledge.

"Had this intention been made known to us, we would have decided not to sponsor it," it said.

Julius Caesar ends its run on Sunday.

The National Endowment for the Arts, which Republican Mr Trump once proposed eliminating, said while the Public's Shakespeare programming had received its grants in the past, none was awarded for Julius Caesar or for funds supporting the New York State Council on the Arts' grant for the Public.

Theatre lovers were quick to point out that a national tour of Julius Caesar in 2012 by The Acting Company featured a Caesar played by a black actor in a modern business suit who had a resemblance to then-president Barack Obama, a Democrat.

Sponsors of the Guthrie Theatre, including Delta, apparently had no objections when that show landed in Minneapolis.

The Public has long protected its role as a protector of provocative and challenging works, unafraid to mount plays that comment on current events or update Shakespearian plays to explore modern themes.

It has had Mr Trump in its sights before.

The institution birthed the megahit Hamilton, whose cast members implored US vice president-elect Mike Pence last year to support diversity, and where Meryl Streep donned self-tanner and a fat suit last summer to impersonate Mr Trump at a gala fund raiser.

Laurence Maslon, an administrator and arts professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, said it was disingenuous for large corporations that have backed the Public for years and enjoyed co-opting its cool themes to sound alarmed now.

"You've got to know what you're getting into," he said, adding that the Public had "50 years of the most provocative, politically engaged work".

He backed Mr Eustis, saying he was "nothing if not brave".

The Public is not the only theatre project trying to address the advent of Mr Trump.

On Broadway, Jon Jon Briones, who plays the sleazy Engineer in a revival of Miss Saigon, makes a sarcastic reference to the Trump campaign slogan Make America Great Again.

The recent off-Broadway play Building The Wall, by Robert Schenkkan, imagined the country under Mr Trump's campaign promise to detain immigrants living in the country illegally.

Film-maker and activist Michael Moore is bringing a one-man show taking on Mr Trump to Broadway this summer.


Press Association

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