Year of Shakespeare: I, Cinna (The Poet)

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


I, Cinna (The Poet), Royal Shakespeare Company, written and directed by Tim Crouch, 20 June 2012 (1.30pm) at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

By Kate McLuskie, Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham

I knew this would be a special kind of show: the programme folder was almost blank and I was given a tiny pencil so that I could ‘Follow Cinna’s lead and write here’. Ah! This must be theatre for people who would not be left alone to make what they might of a play: we were going to be instructed and improved. Shakespeare was going to be accessible and relevant. We would be seeing great events, as we have done since Prufrock and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, from the position of the bit parts and we would be expected to reflect on their significance as we peered over Shakespeare’s shoulder.

Bit parts, of course, always make the most of their moment on the stage and Jude Owusu certainly made the most of his 50 minutes of solo performance. He showed us a Cinna frightened by street politics, troubled by bad dreams, hoping for freedom, building a persuasive image of the possibility that words might change the world. He was astonished to be part of history, angry at the lies and deception of politicians, sad that he could not write of love and peace, and brave as he stepped out to play his part in the main story. In the final sequence, when he imagined the shades of Caesar and Brutus after his own death and spoke to the invisible small scale casualties of civil disturbance, he turned his speech, overloaded as it was with Shakespeare quotations, into a moving reflection on the unjust ironies of history.

All the way through, Owusu made the most of a script and direction that cut him no slack:  The play, apparently, gave him ‘the chance to speak for himself and his poetry’ but it had to do so much more. Cinna the poet owes his existence to Shakespeare’s play so the script had to tell the off-stage story of Julius Caesar, give voice to Cinna’s thoughts about his art, simplify the politics of republican democracy and deliver inspiring messages about the connection between writing and freedom.  It was hard enough for Owusu to switch styles from a matey encouragement of the young audience’s writing to acting out the high drama of Caesar’s death: it was impossible to make much of Cinna’s death when the actor had to dodge round the set’s central door to play the roles of his two attackers.

And why did Cinna have to go through the business of a comic ritual reading a chicken’s entrails? To make the children squirm at the blood? To create a moment of horror when the chicken was found to lack a heart? To echo a generic version of Roman religion? Or to reach for a symbolic resonance beyond the character and his situation?  Cinna’s action speeches always had to make a claim for meaning. Language itself, as he explained in an elegant analogy, followed the model of political divisions: conjunctions were the ‘little people’, nouns the citizens, adverbs the politicians and abstractions the ‘danger words’. Like an overloaded curriculum, or an ingenious critical essay, the play’s ideas worked its actor, and its audience a bit too hard.

The RSC has a terrific reputation for its educational work based on the practice of the legendary Rex Gibson and Cis Berry. Its principle of learning ‘on your feet’, feeling the connection of words and action as a physical sensation, could have come in handy here. As it was, the words, the ideas and the action were in pretty watertight compartments. The young audience was assured that ‘we are all equal here’ and they were encouraged to start some poems by writing random words on the folders provided. But it was not long before the words made a sentence: ‘it must be by his death’. Even their writing opportunities were structured like educational best-practice. They were given the easy task of writing the name of their country, the harder task of writing the name of our leader and then the open-ended task of writing a word to describe him (adult laughter and a punch line: ‘did anyone write a bad word?’). The culmination was a silent exam when the children had to write a poem while Cinna put on his ‘dead’ make-up and intoned the passing minutes. It was all good fun: we could send the results to a web-site; there were no wrong answers. But isn’t that always what the teachers say?

For this afternoon, the Swan theatre was a class-room where the teacher had all the best lines and the children were astonishingly co-operative and obedient. They wrote the words down when asked, they shared their words with their neighbours while waiting for one school group to return for the post performance discussion, and they offered back the abstractions, ‘the danger words’, when asked what their important words were: ‘Power’ ‘War’, ‘conspiracy’; the stuff of high-rated exam answers. The children’s own questions, by contrast, showed how sharply they had engaged with the play: why did Cinna think he was a coward? Why did he have to die? Why didn’t he write about love anyway? Why did you use a fake chicken? Motivation, narrative and theatricality had caught their imagination in spite of the laboured abstract analogies between poetic and political freedom.

The best of the RSC’s educational work never deals in abstraction and never uses the stage as a platform or a pulpit. It uses the creativity of teachers and the pupils themselves to explore the plays in the best traditions of progressive pedagogy. When the children do come to watch a play, they (and their attendant adults) are inspired and delighted by such high points as the 2011 Little Angel puppet theatre Tempest or the stunning Matilda the musical, now in the West End. But that face to face, physical, creative work is costly in teacher and pupil time and is very difficult to scale up, though the company have done wonders with their Lancasterian system of cascaded teacher training. This show, by contrast, will be video-streamed into schools – thank you, Cisco systems and the Joint Academic Network (Janet). That may mean that more children experience an RSC performance than ever before; it may be an effective use of the kit that has been a priority for school funding over the last decade. It may give some teachers learning resources to supplement their own creativity. However it returns us to the teacher-knows-best learning that some of us hoped had disappeared forever. The children may end up knowing more repeatable information but I wonder if they will be moved to writing or action beyond the set classroom tasks or even to thinking independently about why they should care about Cinna the poet.

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Add your thoughts to the discussion below!


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.


Want to watch this production online? Click on the image below to watch it for free at THE SPACE:

Want to hear what other audience members thought? Click below to find out:


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Author:Kate McLuskie

Kate McLuskie is Professor Emerita at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. Her principle research interest is the role of theatre and drama in early-modern culture and the impact of that drama on our own time.
  • bprottey

    Having seen both the webcast and the theatre performance, I have to say that I have really enjoyed Tim Crouch’s series of taking minor characters and providing them with the space to explore their inner thoughts and motivations. I did prefer the stage version, through being able to feed off other audience members’ reactions – especially the youngest theatre goers who endearingly giggled along at the more lighthearted moments. I was intrigued to see if, and how, the footage of mob violence that featured in the webcast would be incorporated to the stage, and I was pleased to find clips being played at key moments on a screen above the door providing the audience with Cinna’s view through the spyhole. I would, however, have also liked the webcast audio of the crackling white noise and the mob noise to have been included as this really contributed to the ominous sense of foreboding that the outside mob presented. Regardless of that small complaint, this was an engaging performance (despite my not being in the intended target audience age group) and praise must go to both Jude and Tim for making Shakespeare relevant to the social problems we have seen in recent years. Well done. 

  • Lisa Edwards012

    I can only express my amazement as I watched children in year 5 engage with I, Cinna through the webcast. This was a group of children who have had to work hard for their achievements in a school in a very deprived area. As they sat, watched, partcipated, talked, reflected and then wanted to perfrom their own pieces based on the ideas inspired from watching this production. For some children the positive role model provided by Jude Owusus helped challenge stereotypes race, violence and things that happen in our lives that are beyond our control (especially for 11 year olds!) Most importnatly children wanted to talk and talk and talk. So I am very thankful for I Ciina, Time Crouch and the educational work that the RSC do (it has helped enlighten and inspire year 5 and 6s and a very tired teacher at this time of the year!)

  • K Mcluskie

    Thanks, everyone, for responding so actively to my review. Making Shakespeare work (in whatever sense you want to take that) has been shown to be an important task that engages the creative and the educational. Making words work is also important and the student posts showed how hard they have worked with words. There are always more responses than those of a single reviewer: theatre is diverse and creative and Tim Crouch’s work created an opportunity for that to happen.

    All best,


  • Erin Sullivan

    Thanks to everyone for getting such an interesting discussion going. I also watched yesterday via the webcast and was able to watch the full post-show discussion. 

    I found the production really compelling – a few lines really stuck with me, in particular Cinna’s statement towards the end that he felt like ‘a small man on the high tide of history’. I would guess that most people caught up in big historical events feel that way, regardless of how famous or seemingly insignificant they may be. I thought the play made a powerful case for the importance of words – not just using them, but thinking about how you use them (‘words work, but only if you work words’). One undergraduate student remarked to me though that while she thought the play did a great job of inspiring people to ‘be brave’, as Cinna puts it, it didn’t necessarily push people on how to decide what is a worthy or moral cause for brave action (she pointed to the riots last summer as an example of potentially ‘brave’ resistance that lost its moral direction). I suppose in a way this is very reflective of Julius Caesar, in which the citizens are so powerfully swayed by the words, rhetoric, and values of others, to the extent that we never really get a sense of what they want or feel. I liked that the production drew very much on a British context. Tim mentioned in the talk-back that it explicitly wasn’t set in Britain, pointing to Cinna’s description of his country as a republic without a monarchy, but other than this very interesting (and eyebrow-raising!) moment it seemed to me that a very British context was being evoked – Cinna breaks for a much-needed cup of tea, and his monologue is inter-cut with media footage reminiscent of the riots, a connection that I think could have been pushed even further. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog I had some reservations about the Julius Caesar’s African setting, and I, Cinna helped redress this balance for me a bit – although the inclusion of the apparently much-discussed heartless chicken did raise some questions for me about stereotypical associations between some Afro-Caribbean cultures and witchcraft / voodoo. I know that this plot point comes directly from Julius Caesar, so I’m not suggesting that’s what anyone was intending, but when the moment is transposed for an audience that may not be familiar with the source play it does take on a different life. I wasn’t watching the production with students in the production’s target age group, so I’m not sure how they would respond to some of the more didactic moments and interactive prompts, but I’ve been keeping an eye on the play’s online ‘poem log’ here – Some really interesting and exciting pieces already, and I look forward to reading more. The issues of sponsorship that Kate raises are important ones to keep discussing, I think, and I hope that arts practitioners themselves don’t see such debates as aggressive or dismissive towards them. Rather, they are important questions to raise about how art and creativity are supported in our culture and they involve everyone who is interested in being a part of that process.

  • Sarah Olive

    Having seen the livestream this morning, then read Kate’s review and the comments that follow it, I’d like firstly to build on those with my own (still raw) reflections on the experience.
    Kate’s review implied that active methods would be less prescriptive than creative writing – something I’m not convinced of from my own experience of watching active methods being applied inside (and outside) the classroom and taught to teachers as part of their INSET. I would argue that with both pedagogies equally there is (and persists) a gap between what their creators and advocates are aiming for (the ideal) and what really ends up happening (the actuality). The latter overwhelmingly tends to demonstrate a reversion (however accidentally, unconsciously) to a teacher-led model, including the learning of ‘more repeatable information’. This phenomenon is remarked on by my colleagues in educational research as happening particularly as a response to immediate, stressful situations in the classroom which temporarily shut down even the most creative lessons, but which may also be related to how strong a hold our own experience as a learner and how deeply ingrained certain educational structures and practices are (teacher-initiated questions and responses, for example).
    Tim has explained his intention for I, Cinna to be a liberating, stimulating and creative experience for students, but has (as his comments above and my own viewing of the webcast make clear) had to contend with the practicalities of the theatre (the set); the mixed abilities of the children e.g. the need to repeat clear ‘instructions’ for them to follow – partly through Cinna’s lines and partly through (when watching online) superimposing them on the action; and the technology (which unfortunately gave up on me only a few seconds into the post-show discussion with Tim, Jude and Malorie Blackman – hopefully a sign of the event’s popularity). The compromises which have eventuated largely highlight the need to work at bridging the gap between ideal teaching and learning experiences and mundane. Additionally, chatroom discussion post-show resisted any reading of the success of the broadcast through rose-tinted spectacles. Some students openly declared their keenly felt lack of a take-away message (theirs or Tim’s) from the production : ‘tim, what is the point of the play’ and ‘how did you get the play going on for so long if you didnt show a message?’, being two examples. Others used the opportunity of being online to start and carry out virtual fights and squabbles with each other ranging from policing online etiquette, to joking about a participant’s paternity, to threats of violence. Although not intentionally related to the play’s themes, these interactions may yet provide food for thinking about democracy and technology.
    Kate’s review usefully pointed to a debate around whether the reading of omens from a chicken carcass was engaging or distracting for the students. Certainly, as I logged on to the chatroom which teachers and students were using to send in questions for Tim and Jude, this was a hot topic. Questions included: ‘why did they use the CHICKEN to predict the future is this an old tradition?’ ‘what was the importance of a chicken, why not a different animal’; ‘What was the point of the chicken, how was it related?’; ‘what was the significance behind the chicken with no heart?’; and ‘did it have to be the heart missing from the chiken’ [sic]. Unfortunately, due to the tech crash, I don’t know whether any of these questions were answered.
    While one might at first think the ‘chicken’ debate trivial, it reveals the ease with which many of the students involved turned their hands to, if not poetry, performance criticism: trying to make sense of the options and decisions around staging the play; demonstrating they way in which interpretations of an entire production can hinge on the smallest prop. On the flip side, however, I found the way in which students seemed driven to ask these questions of the director, sometimes with increasing aggressiveness, rather than reflecting on possible meanings themselves, tangible evidence of a lost opportunity. Indeed, I began to wonder how much it represents an unshakeable, transhistorical culture of demanding instant knowledge and relying on external*, ‘authoritative’ resources for that knowledge, rather than working hard to generate it yourself (see F.R. Leavis) and valuing your own responses (see reader-response criticsm)? But then again the students cannot be held culpable for this urge: it was, in part, driven by a format which encouraged them to do so: a format which was, therefore, in some ways ‘retrograde’ – not to mention years of conditioning by an education system which still, apparently, emphasises the importance of getting the ‘right answer’.
    *External both to the text and the experience of the audience/reader.

  • Beth

    I would certainly agree that the children were engaged with the
    performance, and, as you say, the questions at the end of the show really
    highlighted this.  Whilst some of the issues dealt with in the piece were
    complicated, and may have been difficult for Owusu to portray to a young
    audience, I feel this made the play less patronising, which was a pleasant
    change from a lot of theatre aimed at youth which can be condescending.

    Despite this, I am not sure if the audience will go on to write poetry
    after watching I, Cinna.  Although, I do think that the issues
    raised in the piece will stay with the audience for a long time.  For me
    the play raised issues of empowerment, and people who use their power for good
    and others who use their power negatively, and how we choose to affect the
    world the world we live in.  The audience may not go away and turn these
    thoughts into written words, but I think a lot of thought will have been given
    to the larger issues in the play.

    Additionally, I believe that the idea of streaming the play into schools
    is great.  It is a fantastic way of reaching
    a wide audience, and hopefully the children in the schools will have really
    benefited from the experience.

  • Tim Crouch


    Thanks, Kate.  This is a strong and heartfelt response from you and I am
    genuinely grateful for it.  It
    provokes in me many questions about my objectives with the play.  I certainly didn’t want to place the
    young audience under any bell jar of formalized educational pressure, but you
    are right when you say that the play has a lot to do in its 50 minutes.  Maybe too much.


    I wrote for an audience who wouldn’t know
    the story of Julius Caesar.  My
    first priority, then, was to tell that story.  This is the base line of my solo Shakespeare pieces and each
    of those pieces tells the story of their host play in different ways. 


    I was excited by the prospect of a piece of
    theatre that would trigger a piece of writing in a young audience –
    particularly as my main character was a poet.  I felt the need to lead those young people gently into their
    own composition.  They are not
    asked to write ‘random words’ – they, at times, are asked to write words that
    Cinna doesn’t understand the significance of – until they form a meaning (and
    even then he doesn’t know the ramifications until it is too late). 


    This process of giving structure to the creative
    task before letting the audience write freely felt important to me.  I think people are most empowered when
    they are supported by a good structure. (This is not very Lancasterian of me.)  My attempt in the play is to generate a
    structure that then releases the audience to write with relative freedom.  The poems we have been receiving from
    young people (and the questions we’ve been receiving in the post-show
    discussions) help me go some way in justifying those structuring attempts – but
    I wouldn’t say that I have got it right. 
    The Telegraph reviewer complained that he’d rather have more of
    Shakespeare’s lines in his head than the ‘sub-Pinteresque pap’ he wrote
    himself.   (
    But I didn’t write the play for people like him.  I wrote if for 11 – 14 year olds.  The request to its audience to write makes I, Cinna (the
    poet) the most age-specific of my Shakespeare pieces.  It always feels a bit odd watching adults write during the
    poem-writing section.  They are not
    the constituency I had in mind.  I
    think 12 year olds have a different relationship to writing words than adults –
    particularly critics or academics.


    I was keen to make bridges between the
    themes of Shakespeare’s play and our contemporary experience.  I tried to balance the dramatic
    exegeses of theatre with the authorizing/activating principles of the
    classroom.  I wanted this to be a
    play in which the audience wrote, rather than a workshop that would demonstrate
    those laudable principles of action-learning that the RSC have at the heart of
    their manifesto Stand Up For Shakespeare. 
    I didn’t want the audience to stand up in their seats and find an action
    for ‘republic’, for example.  My
    understanding was that this would happen in an accompanying schools workshop
    (not the post show discussion you saw in the Swan).  It felt enough to get the audience to write.  But maybe writing on paper while sitting
    in chairs is not enough in terms of contemporary educational thinking.  Perhaps you would equate that with the
    reductive practice of ‘knowing more repeatable information’. 


    In the spirit of making this a drama, I
    gave my actor (or teacher as you define him) a character, action and an
    apprehension of narrative suspense. 
    Cinna has a premonition in Shakespeare’s play – ‘I dreamt tonight that I
    did feast with Caesar And things unlucky charge my fantasy.’  I make him superstitious and fearful
    (and unlucky).  These qualities
    feel like I am honouring what little information Shakespeare gives us about the
    man.  The augury on the chicken is
    a light-hearted attempt by him to find the meaning of his future – an attempt
    taken directly from Julius Caesar where Caesar commissions an augury and ‘they
    could not find a heart within the beast.’ 
    This interplay between narrative and character, between host play and
    offshoot, was not designed as a ‘comic ritual’, although I was not ignorant of
    the effect it may have on 11 year olds. 
    This sequence is followed by a film sequence of violence and protest –
    again, my attempt to move beyond direct pedagogical delivery and invite the
    audience to consider connections for themselves.  I had in mind Ranciere’s idea of the ignorant schoolmaster
    for my Cinna – someone who doesn’t know how the lesson ends – or even what the
    subject is.  At no point is the
    young audience assured that ‘we are all equal here’.  This is a mis-quote. 
    In the play, Cinna asks the audience, ‘Are we equal here?’ and hopes
    that we are.  It’s a slight
    distinction but an important one. 
    Cinna wonders (as do I) if the structure of theatre is democratically


    I’d like to consider your thought that the
    play worked the audience a ‘bit too hard’.  I don’t have an answer to this.  Your emphasis on the duress the young audience underwent during
    the performance is apparent in your language – describing the play as an
    ‘overloaded curriculum’, for ‘people who would not be left alone’, for people
    who would be ‘instructed and improved’; the text being ‘laboured’,  ‘overloaded with Shakespeare
    quotations’.  You describe an
    invitation to the audience to write a poem as being a ‘silent exam’.  You describe the young people in the
    audience as being ‘astonishingly …  obedient’ and that the play returned us to the
    ‘teacher-knows-best’ formulation you identify as inimical to progressive
    educational practice.  I think I
    see the forces at work in the play differently to you. 


    Thanks for giving me this chance to write
    these things down!  There is enough
    division in contemporary theatre practice; the thought of merging that hornets’
    nest with the vipers nest of contemporary education practice makes for a heady
    mix. I’m sorry that, for you, it felt a retrograde step.


    I am grateful to the RSC for giving me the
    opportunity to have a go and supporting me so fully.  One area of support that the RSC could not provide was a Swan
    stage devoid of the King John set. 
    One basis for your critique of my wonderful actor, Jude Owusu, having to
    dodge round the set’s central door during Cinna’s death is purely and simply
    because we could couldn’t move our small set any further back.  We were up against King John, and King
    John won. 


    Best wishes


    Tim Crouch 

  • Andrew

    Interesting review, although I think it’s unhelpful to use
    the video streaming as a stick to beat the stage show. I saw I, Cinna
    (The Poet)  last week and I saw a
    potent and subversive piece of political theatre in which the themes, language
    and staging were fully integrated, thought-provoking and wholly rewarding.


    You say of the audience: 
    ‘Motivation, narrative
    and theatricality had caught their imagination in spite of the laboured
    abstract analogies between poetic and political freedom’ Why in spite of?


    Rather than being worked too hard, I was entertained, moved,
    excited and I left the theatre with food for thought on the journey home as did,
    from the sound of it, everyone else in your audience as well as mine. 


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