JULIUS CAESAR · THEATRE

NATIONAL THEATRE LIVE: JULIUS CAESAR

Julius_Caesar_Fathom_National_Theatre_Production_Photo_2018_Ben Whishaw (Brutus) and Michelle Fairley (Cassius) in Julius Caesar. By Manuel Harlan_HR.jpg
Cassius (Michelle Fairley) tells Brutus (Ben Whishaw) of Caesar’s ambitious nature in the National Theatre’s 2018 production of Julius Caesar.

I promised you a ranking post, and a ranking post you shall receive, but first I want to talk about Julius Caesar. I got wind that the National Theatre’s “immersive,” 2018 production was making its rounds through the US two days ago, and I immediately found a cinema that was showing it near me. I love Julius Caesar – it is one of those great plays that I didn’t expect to fall in love with, but did. The suspense in Julius Caesar is unmatched, and I would go so far as it call it Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.

The play opened with a concert on Caesar’s behalf – a rock concert. My first thought, inelegant as it was, was “ew.” As you know, I am not a fan of modern productions. I am not a Shakespeare purist by any means – I just like the feeling of being whisked away from 2018 and thrust into the past. So, yes. Usually, I am not a fan of modern productions. But, somehow, this production of Julius Caesar managed to change my mind. No easy task, given that I can be incredibly stubborn. And stubborn I shall remain: now, in my mind, Julius Caesar is the only play that can still work as a modern piece. All other plays can remain as they are.

Half an hour into the play, I found myself worried that they would be going down a very predictable path. I think painting Caesar as a villain makes this play incredibly boring. The play itself is intriguing because the reader isn’t supposed to be sure if the conspirators are actually doing the right thing. But when Caesar is painted as a pompous madman (which seems a strange interpretation to me, given that he rejects the crown three times), then the audience is being told that he had it coming. The characters go from grey to being black and white, which is boring, boring, boring. An example of this is the Shakespeare in the Park production that was put on a while ago, in which they had Caesar look exactly like our terrible 45th President. This sort of thing automatically puts the characters in boxes – suddenly you find yourself knowing who the big baddie is. And the play is ruined.

Fortunately, my worries were unfounded. I had Brutus (played absolutely brilliantly by Ben Whishaw) to thank for this. Whishaw played Brutus exactly as I think he should be played: bubbling over with nervous energy and so, so invested in doing the right thing, whatever that may be. At the beginning of the play, a plebeian handed him a book to sign, and that book was titled On Liberty, authored by Brutus himself. That told us what we needed to know. Brutus thinks Rome should be free – he believes in liberty above all else. And when Cassius (played so well by Michelle Fairley that I almost forgot about how little I care for the character in general) convinces Brutus to join her, he finds himself staying up all night, surrounded by books with titles like Stalin and Saddam Hussein. Almost as if he were trying to double and triple check that Caesar is, in fact, a dictator. Almost as if he were trying to read about the red flags that people in the past ignored. It is Brutus’ clear uncertainty that makes the audience feel uncertain too. Maybe Caesar didn’t deserve to be murdered. Maybe Brutus was reading between the lines a little too much. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Caesar (David Calder) had a lot of gravity to him, and I still did not agree with the decision to kill him. Something interesting, though: when Caesar was warned about the Ides of March, something on his face told me that the prophecy actually scared him for a moment. But then, very quickly, he tossed it aside and laughed with the crowd. How much of the prophecy did he actually believe?

In my original post about Julius Caesar, I wrote that there is something very soft about Brutus, something that is very unbecoming of a warrior. That something in this production was his nervous energy, and also the way he behaved toward his wife. Portia was played as absolutely desperate in this production – desperate to know what plagues her beloved husband so. Brutus and Portia together were a flurry of embraces, soft kisses, and desperate pleas. He so clearly loves her, and when she shows him the wounds she’s inflicted on herself, his utterance of “Oh, Portia,” was so heavy and sad that it replayed itself in my head endlessly during the car ride home.

Mark Antony (David Morrissey) was wonderful, and had a stage presence befitting the powerful man he is. But I will say that he was played a touch too emotional for me. I think Mark Antony, as a character, would benefit from having a calm, eerie edge to him. He is nothing but a snake waiting for the perfect moment to strike, and there needs to be something about him that wrongly convinces Brutus otherwise. That aside, Mark Antony truly began to shine when the war broke out. He is a character who loves the thrill of battle, and this production made sure we took note of that.

It was difficult for me to see Brutus beg so many of his friends to kill him. Difficult only because he is my favorite character in this play, even though he is wound so tightly that it makes me nervous whether I’m reading or watching the story unfold. He moved to do it himself a couple of times, but was never able to commit. Little details like that really added to Brutus as a whole. Ben Whishaw might have ruined all other interpretations of Brutus from here on out for me.

Every time I write one of these theater review posts, I wonder what we can do to make Shakespeare more accessible. I actually think this production figured it out. Julius Caesar was described as “immersive.” What that means is that the audience was very much in the thick of things. There was no solid, stationary stage. Instead, platforms rose from the ground as necessary. And the war took place throughout the entire theater. Dust and pebbles cascaded from the sky, showering the audience. Lights flashed, and the sounds of gunshots filled the entire room. The audience cheered for Caesar, gasped at Brutus’ bloody hands, turned violent at Mark Antony’s whim. There was absolutely no way for someone to be in that room and not be enthralled by the tale before them. So maybe making Shakespeare’s plays immersive is the key to making them interesting for everyone. I very desperately wanted to be in that crowd, even though they were all coated in a fine layer of debris at the end. I’m not quite sure how I would make something like that work for other plays – say, Measure for Measure – but I’m sure there’s a director out there who knows just what to do.

There isn’t much more I can say about Julius Caesar that I haven’t already said here or in my original post on the play. I love the suspense, I love the political intrigue, and I love that Brutus is so grey. I highly suggest giving it a watch if you can! Click here to find a cinema near you.

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