Dear friends and readers,
If you are anywhere near the DC area, you’ve got five days left to see this stirring and visionary production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar directed by Robert Richmond with its striking stage design by Tony Cisek, costume Mariah Hale, lighting Jim Hunter. As Kate Havard writes (for once this is an accurate description), this is a dramatization of Shakespeare’s play which speaks home to us in 2014 as about war’s futility and cruelty, the ambition of self-blinded men, the destruction of a republic (however ill led by a vain man, aka Caesar played vaingloriously by Michael Sharon), with hooded figures everywhere. People on the watch for surveillance and ambush. The costumes of the war scenes in the second half were those of WW1, the gassing of populations was invoked (this has been a year of memorials of 1914), but the highlighting (rightly) of the aka-47 (killed more human beings than any other) invented first in 1945/6 shows that the reference is universal. had they the courage, Brutus should have been dressed as an Arab (bin Laden would have shocked, but what say you to one of the leaders of the Arab Spring in Egypt), with Mark Anthony in Western garb, or vice versa.
The women are minor or secondary presences who plead with their men to keep away, and the solution was to choose actresses who looked alike and like the soothsayer
who turn turn up as women in the chorus as destroyed as well as easily led and suffering people.
It is at the same time a testament to the vitality and intelligence of this production, the play is still centered on a relationship as the text is: that between Cassius and Brutus, with Brutus, the conflicted hero-villain whose later grim thoughts anticipate Macbeth’s:
I’ll remember to my dying day, my father saying to me when I was around 10 and we had gone to see this play somewhere or other and he had read it afterward, how brilliant and astonishing was the scene between Cassius and Brutus where the Cassisus says, hurt, petulant, “What cold to me,” and Brutus replies when accused of not liking Cassius as his friend anymore, “I do not like your faults.” How human, how real the utterances, my father said. The slow awakening of Brutus to what is evil, the deterioration of this pair’s relationship, their individual noble suicides are kept intact. Perhaps Mark Anthony is made corrupt too quickly; in the play Anthony does care for Caesar, is angered, even if we quickly see what he admired in Caesar was not his republicanism as Anthony pricks off who to kill and who to bribe. As a character he was more sidelined than usual, since his indignation and modicum of idealism was not believed in:
But the touching boy-like sleepiness and innocence (to Brutus) of Lucius (William Vaughn) is kept, and his loyalty to Brutus, so human nature’s better potentials are here too, though the overall effect is nihilistic. The actors playing the tertiary roles were effective here, especially Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Casca/Messala.
The production did remind me of last year’s Richard III in its use of straight-forward traditional large gestures and symbolic staging, both had highly theatricalized acting. When the lights were on, this set was beautiful in its grey marble.
The last time I saw Julius Caesar was at the 14th Street Shakespeare company (many years ago now), and it was just saturated in blood. The imagery of the play does call for it; this production kept blood to a discreet minimum. I understood that, but thought the substitution of the leafs from red poppies had the unfortunate effect of somehow valorizing the hideous slaughter of WW1; I know that was not meant but recently I’ve watched a profound Future Learn MOOC on “Trauma and Memory” in World War One, one which focused on those who survived, just, wounded horribly, on those hardest hit (millions) by the loss of family members and friends, and whole neighborhoods decimated. I’m just not keen on these fields of beautiful poppies. But it’s a small flaw.
The exhibit in the Great Hall linked in: it was about a pair of scholars who undecoded some manuscripts said to prove that Bacon and not Shakespeare wrote the plays, and as context, there were cases showing the history of codes for surveillance, and one showing how kings and queens in the Renaissance used codes for spying on one another and communication.
This staging made me recall the famous MGM production on film, and I rewatched (a YouTube), James Mason as a more sensitive Brutus, John Gielgud a humane Cassius, Marlon Brando a noble Mark Anthony, Deborah Kerr Portia, and Greer Garson Calpurnia as again interchangeable, with Louis Calhern as an arrogant Caesar, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. It was far more personal, more hopeful.
Still time to make it there.
I’m continuing to watch and listen to Bate’s Shakespeare and His World, another fine MOOC, well worth reading the plays for and watching more than once. To these two blogs: Weeks 1-3; Weeks 4-8, I add here another commentary on the final week of Jonathan Bate’s Shakespeare and his World
Week 10, 12/3/2014: This was a concluding week in which Bate attempted to account for the transformation of Shakespeare into a much respected playwright, but one among his fellows to his present domination and ubiquity, something not far off from idolatry; he moved from how popular Shakespeare’s plays were in his era, to the later 17th century when Shakespeare held his own, however adapted into the 18th century, the first serious editions, lives of Shakespeare by Rowe, Pope, Theobald, Johnson. Here he did pause to go over a few of the adaptations of the era. The clincher or turning point was Garrick’s Jubilee in which he brought together the continuous stage traditions and these editions, and the reading of Shakespeare (the sonnets had begun to be paid attention to) into a outward public series of ceremonies at Stratford which became a site de memoire. He hastened over the 19th century to our own time and wandered among shelves to show us how many languages Shakespeare is now translated into.
Watching this spurred me to write about the Julius Caesar presently at the Folger here in DC, a play much played over the century.
There was a 300 word assignment in which we were asked to write about a creative text coming out of Shakespeare (a post-text) and how it reflected some of the themes of the course. I was tempted to write but did not spend enough time on it. I cut down my blog on Shakespeare Restored and talked about how interesting it was to see these adaptations had some merit. Also that I had wished he had gone over Shakespeare’s sonnets as in these we feel we reach this remarkable man’s mind and presence, seen in his open vulnerability, candor: it’s this self that has made these plays what they are.