A seer once told Julius Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March.” It seems the seer should have also warned against splattering paint.
For the third time, actor and classicist Sebastian Lockwood will take the stage and bring to life and eventually death the story of Julius Caesar, the most victorious general in Roman history. But what makes this performance, titled Paint Caesar Dead, unique, is that as Lockwood builds to the plays climax — when Caesar is stabbed 23 times by conspirators in the street — about 10 students from the New Hampshire Institute of Art will be painting and illustrating on the stage alongside him.
“At the beginning it feels very chaotic,” Lockwood said. “The audience doesn’t know where to focus.”
But then the lights change and Lockwood begins the story and both he and the artists enter into a poetic rhythm. Paint Caesar Dead is based on Lockwood’s original work Caesar the Man from Venus, in which Lockwood suggests Julius Caesar descends from the female goddess Venus herself. Throughout the performance, Lockwood, using the first person, weaves viewers through some of Caesar’s “early adventures with the pirates, with the courts, his adventures with the wild and impossible Mark Antony and then his great conquest of Gaul with the surrender of Vercingetorix,” according to a description of the play found at www.lumenarts.com.
There will also be students acting as centurions and playing other roles. The artists begin with blank canvases and work as the story unfolds, and all of their works will be directly related to the performance. When Caesar is stabbed so too do the artists stab their creations. When the performance is finished, the artists turn their works around so they can be enjoyed by the audience.
Lockwood said after he did the first performance of Paint Caesar Dead, people were surprised he would repeat it a second and now a third time. But he is very much an impromptu performer and so his energy and performance change depending on the artists on stage. He feeds on their rhythm and concentration and even when they look up when he tells a joke.
“My performance is sort of a like a dance,” Lockwood said.
Lockwood said there can be great contrast between the works of the illustrators and the painters. He said the illustrators’ pictures might be a perfect representation, while the painters are affected by the mood. He said they may also paint several images on top of each other on a single canvas. Lockwood said one year he had a sculptor on stage and he hopes to get another one.
Lockwood loves working with the students and believes this project is a stretch for them. While many are seasoned artists, few have worked live in front of a crowd before or under such a strict deadline. As he relies so heavily on improvisation, Lockwood does not give many instructions to the students. Some thrive on this freedom, while others want more guidance.
“One student kept asking me what to do,” Lockwood said. “Finally, I told him to just do it.”
Lockwood, who performs other classics like The Odyssey, Beowulf and The Epic of Gilgamesh, decided the Caesar piece should be the one used with the artists because it was his own text and he could bring a whirlwind of energy to the piece. To hear Lockwood talk about Caesar is to hear passion personified.
Lockwood believes the Roman leader masterminded his own death because he was such a polarizing figure and knew he could never accomplish what he needed — to change Rome from a city made of stone into a city of marble — while he was alive.
He wrote his piece just as the HBO series Rome came out. Lockwood wanted to create a contrasting Caesar to the one portrayed in the show. His Caesar walks fearlessly into his destiny, which is a message Lockwood relays to his students all the time.
The performance will be held in the French Building at the Art Institute, which with its large columns looks like Jupiter’s temple, making it the perfect setting for the show.
“It is always fun to recreate Rome,” Lockwood said. “There is something deliciously depraved about Rome.”