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Julius Caesar

A Julius Caesar for the Harry Potter Age

Royal Shakespeare Company, Park Avenue Armory, New York, N.Y.
Sunday, August 7, 2011, F–101&103 (center left stalls)
Directed by Lucy Bailey

When the conspirators met to convince Brutus to join them in their enterprise, wearing black, hooded cloaks they emerged through darkened panels at the back of the stage as if they were passing through the wall into Brutus’s living room. It seemed like something out of Harry Potter. There were many more such moments when figures would appear in dim light, or shadows seemed to move, making you wonder what’s real, what’s an illusion?

To call this a Julius Caesar for the Harry Potter age is not to denigrate it (especially as I am a big Potter fan). It gave the play such a dark tone and a sinister element in which you couldn’t really be certain whether Voldemort was the power-hungry Caesar (who, notably, was always wearing white and bathed in light) or operating among the conspirators. Another Potter connection was how Director Lucy Bailey used cinematic techniques in the staging. Swiveling panels at the back of the stage occasionally became screens on which crowds were projected in the opening holiday scenes and the funeral, and armies at Sardis and Philippi (in the program William Dudley was listed as “set and video designer”). Another cinematic technique was the musical soundtrack provided by a brass-dominated orchestra above the stage, which swung into loud action for the assassination scene, the funeral, and the battles, and provided mood music at other times.

Admitting that I still find Julius Caesar to be one of Shakespeare’s most tedious works, I can say this RSC production was about as good as one could expect the play to be staged. Two performances in particular elevated this production: Greg Hicks’ Caesar, and the eight actors who collectively comprised the conspirators.

This Caesar was no elder statesmen, as I’ve almost always seen him presented. Hicks was a virile, middle-aged man, usually shirtless with testosterone coursing through his veins like the Old Spice guy who just finished an invigorating run and splash in the pool. Loud and brash, Hicks’ Caesar consistently scored well-earned laughs with his posturing pronouncements (I never saw this as a comic role before, but in this production, Caesar was more kin to Bottom than to Duncan). This was a Caesar you could admire for his attitude, his conquests, and his seeming selflessness. This was also a Caesar you needed to be leery of for that very attitude, for the sense of entitled authority that had come with those conquests, and for the self-serving purposes his seeming selflessness would inevitably lead to. This Caesar was perfectly summed up by Decius Brutus: “When I tell him he hates flatterers, he says he does, being then most flattered.”

Brian Doherty played that Decius Brutus, and it’s remarkable that he ascended the hubbub of secondary characters to become such a memorably identifiable person on the stage. But so did all the conspirators. Aside from Hicks and Hannah Young, who delivered a believably passionate Portia, this production seemed to concentrate the bulk of talent in this group of assassins: Doherty as Decius, Oliver Ryan as Casca, Gruffudd Glyn as Cinna, David Rubin as Trebonius, Adam Burton as Metellus Cimber, Paul Hamilton as Caius Ligarius, and the two leaders, Sam Troughton as Marcus Brutus and John Mackay as Cassius. Although a bloody Caesar was lying center stage after the assassination and a blustering Antony had arrived on the scene, it was hard to take our eyes off the assassins, flushed with success but warily moving and trading glances as they waited for further instruction and tried to read Antony’s purpose.

As for Troughton’s Brutus and Mackay’s Cassius, their studied diction and emotional bearing got us through their overlong scenes of discussion, debate, and argument. Mackay reined-in Cassius’s hot-headed tendencies so that he acquiesced to Brutus on key points out of genuine respect rather than in seething frustration. He also deferred to Brutus with an eye toward maintaining the conspiracy’s momentum, even though on every point Brutus was wrong. Troughton managed to portray his Brutus as “the noblest Roman of them all” even as he used a modern crutch due to a knee injury he suffered a few weeks before while playing Romeo (understudy Dyfan Dwyfor took over as Romeo; the role of Brutus didn’t require the Veronese lover’s acrobatics, dances, and swordplay, so Troughton soldiered on in this role).

Darrell D’Silva’s Mark Antony was more bully than politician, a hard-partying man who once rushed to the back of the stage to throw up. His boisterous show of affection for Caesar’s corpse and minimal lack of affection for the conspirators immediately after the assassination should have convinced Brutus that Cassius was right to oppose Antony being allowed to live, let alone speak at the funeral. That great oration, meanwhile, was no subtle manipulation of the populous but a boldly, callous condemnation of Brutus and obvious working up of the crowd. In all his roles in this RSC repertoire (Kent in King Lear and Polixenes in Winter’s Tale), D’Silva seemed to equate emotion with volume, both vocal and in gesture, so when he was upset, frustrated, or worried it came with much roaring and stomping about.

This production seemed intent on pushing the bold button whenever possible, from the sometimes-intrusive soundtrack to those video images at the back of the stage (which were effective in the army scenes but disconcerting when the crowd kept waving and gyrating during the funeral orations). The action was bloody. The two tribunes cracked down on the holiday crowd like Daly’s cops billyclubbing war protestors. Antony appeared on stage at the beginning of IV.1 carrying a bloody head by the scalp. The play opened with two men wrestling in what became an increasingly intense and deadly combat (apparently they were supposed to be Romulus and Remus, both of whom were in the cast list, but the purpose of this interpolation was beyond me). However, the highlights were the subtle moments: Cassius measuring his every move despite his quick-to-temper personality, Caesar kissing Brutus on the cheeks upon meeting him on the morning of the assassination, and Calphurnia (Noma Dumezweni) leaning on Brutus after she failed to convince Caesar to stay home, as if Brutus were her primary hope and best friend.

It was moments like these that muddled even more the play’s morality. Brutus may be honorable, as he is claimed to be: and yet, he betrayed Caesar, Calphurnia, Portia, and, ultimately—albeit unintentionally—his fellow conspirators. He also pushed Rome into a bloodbath. The tragedy in this play came about by the actions of self-centered men, with Caesar, self-promoter though he was, possibly being the least self-centered among them.

Eric Minton
August 9, 2011

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