Fighting a giggle fit is not what an audience member should be doing during the first half of Julius Caesar. It was unprofessional of me, I know. But those accents... This group from Texas are attempting, through some very worthy scholarship, to recreate Elizabethan pronunciation so that we might hear Shakespeare as it was meant to be heard.
However, after half an hour and all shades of the Shamrock and the Union Jack, it does begin to unify and the text reveals itself.
Unfortunately, Elizabethan pronunciation is ridiculous. It straddles every border of the UK, but is most closely related to Northern Irish. There is a strong West Country streak, and then the Middle English notes: sounding the silent ‘k’ in ‘know’, for example. For the first half hour it feels like a group of Americans trying out all the English accents under the sun whilst attempting the gravitas appropriate to a Shakespeare tragedy. The automatic reaction to such incongruity is to laugh. So, I did have fun for a while, I suppose.
However, after half an hour and all shades of the Shamrock and the Union Jack, it does begin to unify and the text reveals itself. In this very simple production, The University of Houston-Downtown Theatre Company have pared down the text as well as cutting out any unnecessary props or anything that might distract from the academic exercise they’ve undertaken. The result is a singularly uninspiring production of one of Shakespeare’s most vibrant plays, and only a superficial insight into long forgotten ways of saying words. The fact that you do get used to voices that are originally amusingly odd is fleetingly interesting, but getting used to them means you simply find yourself watching just another production of Julius Caesar, with nothing to distinguish it but the invisible research that inspired it.
Whilst underneath this production is a lot of work, the end does not justify the means. Only real specialists will be interested in this show – and if you’re a real specialist, you probably already know what Elizabeth pronunciation is like, and don’t wish to be subjected to it for 85 minutes. It is worth researching this topic and listening to some recordings online, but ultimately a Julius Caesar with artistic drive and integrity behind it is the only one worth sitting through and paying for. This one just has funny voices.