Monday, October 13, 2014

Julius Caesar: Cowards die many times...

Another previously unseen-on-stage Shakespeare play, another night at the Globe.  Yes, after finally getting to see TITUS ANDRONICUS earlier this year, we took advantage of the Globe's Roman season to see JULIUS CAESAR, which I had only ever seen in the 1953 film with Marlon Brando and James Mason.

Having now visited the Globe theatre more this year alone than any other year, I am getting used to the modus operandi of the theatre, always crowded foyer, the slightly insistent older volunteer ushers and that every play ends with a jig... even with half the characters dead at the end!

For this production we booked for the first level, looking over heads of the groundlings onto the stage.  Sounds perfect?  Of course not, not when you are stuck with a sulk of teenage girls who wanted to be anywhere but there and sighed and shuffled and whispered and looked at each other's watches and mooched about until even the most unflappable of Globe ushers was having a long muttered conversation with them.  Oh for them to have been dispatched as thoroughly as Caesar.

Despite this serious annoyance, I was gripped by Dominic Dromgoole's fast-paced and lucid production and now I understand how this play - like so many in Shakespeare's canon - has been reinterpreted and staged in countries and at times of political instability because within the play there are remarkable political insights, analysis and sly satire - how disheartening that political chicanery and spin have been around *that* long!

In a play of shifting loyalties between characters and audience alike, Julius Caesar is blithely ignorant to the ferment quietly brewing around him.  His friend Brutus is approached by Cassius and, playing on Brutus' strong republican beliefs, recruits him into an anti-Caesar conspiracy by citing the ruler's increasing domination of Rome.

Dismissing the warnings of his wife Calpurnia and a soothsayer, Caesar goes to the Forum and is waylaid by the conspirators who seize their moment and assassinate him.  Feeling justified in their actions they do not attempt to flee and even allow Caesar's friend Mark Antony to speak an oration over the dead leader on the Forum steps.  Blas√© about his friendship with Caesar, Antony drops his mask and is consumed with angry grief when left alone.

In the play's most famous scene, Brutus addresses the crowd from the Forum steps, explaining rationally the conspirators' reasons for the killing which has the crowd denouncing Caesar and all he stood for.  Antony speaks next and in a dissembling, cunning speech he turns the fickle crowd against
the conspirators by pointing out how Caesar refused being Emperor three times and brought prosperity to Rome.  He shows them Caesar's will which has left money to every Roman citizen and in a coup-de-theatre uncovers Caesar's body for the crowd to inspect.  The crowd are by now whipped up into a murderous frenzy and they start a hunt against the conspirators.

How interesting to see this during the Party Conference season!  Antony's speech would fit in to any of them and is probably a basis for most of them.  What struck me as particularly modern is Shakespeare's use of repetition for Antony's speech, he raises each reason for Caesar to be revered then quotes what Brutus has just said "and yet Brutus is an honourable man".  He works through his rhetorical questions and lets his audience come to their own decision about Brutus' duplicity.

As in CORIOLANUS, Shakespeare has no time for the Roman rabble with their herd mentality, ignorance and savage partisanship.  Well that certainly hasn't changed, you only have to listen to an X FACTOR audience.

As I said it certainly helps that Dominic Dromgoole has directed such a fast-moving and lucid production, my only quibble being that the doubling and sometimes tripling of the cast makes it sometimes a bit confusing to keep up with who's who, particularly at the end when the battle scenes between Antony and the conspirators come and go so swiftly.

There were good unshowy performances from a hardworking cast.  George Irving was well-cast as Caesar, his avuncular air hiding his wariness at those he suspected of being against him while Anthony Howell was good as Cassius, the chief conspirator against Caesar.  He was well-partnered by Tom McKay as Brutus, the good man who does wrong thinking he is doing right.  His scenes with Howell were particularly enjoyable, particularly in the scene where Brutus and Cassius argue over the rights and wrongs of their actions before going into battle.  The two actors were so similar in look and style that it was like watching two sides of the same coin.

Luke Thompson was a fine Antony suggesting the many shades of his character - the easy-going, sporty, favourite of Caesar, his dissembling nature and finally the avenging warrior.  As I have said, his playing of Antony's funeral oration was excellent.

Katy Stephens was an impassioned Calpurnia, Christopher Logan gave Casca's speech about Caesar refusing the title of Emperor the right air of sneering disdain, William Mannering was very good in his several roles and I also liked Joe Jameson as the chilly Octavius, his wary relationship with Mark Antony already sowing the seeds of mistrust which Shakespeare further seven years later in ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA.  I also liked the look of Jonathan Fensom's Elizabethan costumes.

With one more visit booked for the Globe this year, I think my wariness of that venue can be said to be exorcised - now if only we can do something about those school parties...

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