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.

JULIUS CAESAR

AWAKE, AND SEE THYSELF!

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Julius Caesar (Andrew Woodall) and Calphurnia (Kristin Atherton) in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2017 production of Julius Caesar.

Two acts into Julius Caesar, I found myself putting the play down and chastising myself for always speaking in absolutes. I’ve said many times before that I absolutely do not love tragedies. But I did love Julius Caesar – however, I will argue that this play feels less like a tragedy and more like a history. When I think about tragedies, plays like King Lear and Macbeth come to mind. I’m not sure I’d lump a play like Julius Caesar with them.

I was worried about getting through both Julius Caesar and Hamlet this month because both plays are relatively heavy. But it looks like I’m back on track! And now I have plenty of time to get through Hamlet.

Julius Caesar opens in Rome, as you’d expect. The great man himself is on his way back to the capital after defeating Pompey. The common people are out and about, but we have two tribunes who are insisting on raining on this specific parade.

MARULLUS
Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he home?
What tributaries follow him to Rome
To grace in captive bonds his chariot wheels?
You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climbed up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome.
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?
Be gone!
Run to your houses, fall upon your knees,
Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light on this ingratitude.

You would think Marullus would be a little more careful with his speech now that Pompey is old news. And, look, he isn’t wrong, but we’ll find out soon enough that the people of Rome are very changeable.

We cut to Caesar himself. He is with Mark Antony, his wife Calphurnia, Brutus, Brutus’ wife Portia, and a number of other characters.

CAESAR
Stand you directly in Antonius’ way
When he doth run his course – Antonius.

ANTONY
Caesar, my lord.

CAESAR
Forget not in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calphurnia, for our elders say
The barren, touchèd in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.

I found this little exchange to be rather weird. I suppose it’s not important in the long run, but it still caught my attention. The backstory is that during the feast of Lupercal, young men were meant to run naked through the streets and whip people in their way. Women who were whipped were then more likely to give birth to healthy babies. That’s a fun Ancient Rome fact, but what’s the point of mentioning this at all? I think Shakespeare was trying to tell us two things: one, that Caesar has no heir. This immediately puts him in a position of weakness for obvious reasons. Two, that either Calphurnia is barren or that Caesar himself is sterile. If the latter is being suggested, then it’s just one bullet point in a long, long list of all the things wrong with Caesar – things that make him appear more human than God.

All in all, I would rather men didn’t run around naked whipping women, but that’s neither here nor there.

A soothsayer comes forward and warns Caesar about the ides of March. Caesar chooses to dismiss this warning immediately. He and his party leave to watch the chase, but Brutus and Cassius stay behind.

Cassius, who I quickly noticed really loves to stir the pot, takes note of the fact that Brutus hasn’t been himself lately. And it’s true, Brutus hasn’t been himself. He is afraid that Caesar might be crowned king, and Cassius urges him to act on his fears.

CASSIUS
[…] I was born free as Caesar; so were you;
We both have fed as well and we can both
Endure the winter’s cold as well as he.
For once, upon a raw and gusty day,
The troubled Tiber chafing with her shores,
Caesar said to be “Dar’st thou, Cassius, now
Leap in with me into this angry flood
And swim to yonder point?” Upon the word,
Accoutered as I was, I plungèd in
And bade him follow; so indeed he did.
The torrent roared, and we did buffet it
With lusty sinews, throwing it aside
And stemming it with the hearts of controversy.
But ere we could arrive the point proposed,
Caesar cried “Help me, Cassius, or I sink!”

Cassius’ story is, for obvious reasons, pretty ridiculous. He uses this story of Caesar not being able to brave the raging Tiber, as well as a story of Caesar having a seizure, to make his point. Granted, Caesar may not be the unshakable force he pretends he is, but I really don’t see any reason for a conspiracy right now. But, like I said, Cassius loves stirring the pot. He is also very petty, as he constantly wonders why Caesar should move upward in the world while men like himself and Brutus remain in their places. What can I say, Cassius? You snooze, you lose. Why didn’t you defeat Pompey yourself then?

No solid plans are set as of yet – Brutus asks Cassius to come to his home to discuss the matter further. Cassius is left alone.

CASSIUS
Well, Brutus, thou art noble. Yet I see
Thy honorable mettle may be wrought
From that it is disposed. Therefore it is meet
That noble minds keep ever with their likes;
For who so firm that cannot be seduced?
Caesar doth bear me hard, but he loves Brutus.
If I were Brutus now, and he were Cassius,
He should not humor me. I will this night
In several hands at his windows throw,
As if they came from several citizens,
Writings, all tending to the great opinion
That Rome holds of his name, wherein obscurely
Caesar’s ambition shall be glancèd at
And after this, let Caesar seat him sure,
For we will shake him, or worse days endure.

Cassius is the worst – he quickly decides to take advantage of Brutus’ current state of mind. And, as soon as he gets the chance, he begins to recruit others into this budding group of conspirators.

We should, perhaps, wonder where they are coming from. Julius Caesar, to me, does not have a clear set of protagonists and antagonists. Most characters find themselves in a strange grey area. As a reader (and, technically, someone on the outside of this particular situation), I do not think the case against Caesar is strong enough to warrant his assassination. There is no guarantee that Caesar will become a tyrant. He refuses the crown three times while Brutus and Cassius speak. They just cannot base their fears on a feeling. I mean they can, and they will, but they shouldn’t.

Brutus, actually, is anxious about this very issue.

BRUTUS
It must be by his death. And for my part
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crowned:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.
It is the bright day that brings forward the adder,
And that craves wary walking. Crown him that,
And then I grant we put a sting in him
That at his will he may do danger with.
Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins
Remorse from power. And, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections swayed
More than his reason. But ’tis a common proof
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder;
Where to the climber-upward turns his face;
But, when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent. And since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities.
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg,
Which, hatched, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

This is all very well, but “may” is not the same as “will,” and I think Brutus knows this. As I write this entry, I wonder when the best time for me to discuss Brutus might be. I doubt anybody is anxiously awaiting my opinion on him, but here we go. I actually like Brutus a lot. He wants very much to do the honorable thing, which I can respect. He makes huge, huge mistakes during the course of this play, but only because he thinks he’s doing the right thing for the Roman people. In a sense, he is a very selfless figure, only doing what he thinks is right. There is also something strangely gentle about him, despite the fact that he’s at the center of this conspiracy. I don’t know. Brutus is a tough character to crack, and a lot of it sits on directors and actors.

You’ll remember that Cassius wanted to plant letters for Brutus to find. One of these letters finds its way into his hands.

BRUTUS
[…] Am I entreated
To speak and strike? O, Rome, I make thee promise,
If the redress will follow, thou receivest
Thy full petition at the hand of Brutus.

Like I said: anything for Rome.

I should mention that it is the fifteenth of March, and all hell has evidently broken loose – environmentally, that is. Ill omens, perhaps?

The conspirators arrive at Brutus’ house. Sadly, they are not there for a fun night in, but rather to put their plan into action. Caesar’s fate is decided, but there is still the question of Mark Antony.

CASSIUS
Decius, well urged. I think it is not meet
Mark Antony, so well beloved of Caesar,
Should outlive Caesar. We shall find of him
A shrewd contriver; and, you know, his means,
If he improve them, may well stretch so far
As to annoy us all; which to prevent,
Let Antony and Caesar fall together.

I don’t like Cassius, but he has a point here. We haven’t seen much of Mark Antony in this play as of yet, but they definitely have cause to be afraid of him. Brutus does not think that this is a good idea, however. This is his second mistake – the first, of course, being his involvement in this conspiracy.

The thing is, Brutus is not a stone-cold killer. He is involved in this mess because he thinks it is for the good of Rome, and because he thinks the people will be better off for it. But the more blood they steep themselves in, the less likely the plebeians will be on their side. Brutus is too honorable to be involved in this, really.

When the conspirators leave, Portia enters. She is concerned for Brutus – after all, he hasn’t been sleeping, and has been in a bit of a mood. Brutus tells his wife that he’s been unwell, but she knows better than to believe that.

PORTIA
[…] You have some sick offense within your mind,
Which by the right and virtue of my place
I ought to know of. [She kneels.] And upon my knees
I charm you, by my once commended beauty,
By all your vows of love, and that great vow
Which did incorporate and make us one,
That you unfold to me, your self, your half,
Why you are heavy, and what men tonight
Have had resort to you; for here have been
Some six or seven who did hide their faces
Even from darkness.

BRUTUS
Kneel not, gentle Portia.

[He lifts her up.]

I said I see something gentle in Brutus, and this is why. His wife does a bit of pushing throughout this entire conversation, and not once does Brutus lose his temper. There was something so tender to me about his lifting her up, asking her not to kneel. Their relationship seems to be a bit unusual to me by Ancient Roman standards, because Brutus eventually promises to tell her the truth – and he does.

All that’s left is to lure Caesar to the senate house.

CAESAR
The cause is in my will. I will not come.
That is enough to satisfy the Senate.
But for your private satisfaction,
Because I love you, I will let you know.
Calphurnia here, my wife, stays me at home.
She dreamt tonight she saw my statue,
Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts,
Did run pure with blood; and many lusty Romans
Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it.
And these does she apply for warnings and portents
And evils imminent, and on her knee
Hath begged that I will stay at home today.

But Caesar is convinced – Decius tells him that the Senate means to crown him. How foolish I was, Caesar says, to have yielded to Calphurnia’s fears. This is very frustrating. Calphurnia’s fears and prophetic dream are not taken seriously in the slightest. The words of a senator (who likely has a knife in his pocket) talk Caesar into leaving his house and walking right into his grave. What could have been avoided if a woman had been listened to?

Caesar manages to brush off yet another warning from a friend, and is stabbed in the senate house. I have to say, I never really thought of Shakespeare as being good at suspense, but this play changed my mind. We feel the hours, minutes, and seconds ticking down while reading. I knew what was going to happen, but I didn’t know when, so I was on edge the entire time. How clever of Shakespeare to break the fated day up into multiple scenes.

Calphurnia’s dream becomes a reality.

CAESAR
Et tu, Brutè? – Then fall, Caesar.

Like a shot through the heart. Caesar loves Brutus, so his feeble “You also, Brutus?” is so painful to read. What a betrayal.

Brutus sends word that the Roman people will come to no harm. It seems like their plan has gone off without a hitch. But they’re forgetting one terribly dangerous thing: Mark Antony is still alive.

Mark Antony is distraught at the sight of Caesar’s bleeding body. He speaks to the conspirators very calmly and boy, is it eerie.

ANTONY
Therefore I took your hands, but was indeed
Swayed from the point by looking down on Caesar.
Friends am I with you all and love you all,
Upon this hope, that you shall give me reasons
Why and wherein Caesar was dangerous.

This success of this scene from here on out really lies on Mark Antony’s shoulders. Nothing about this conversation should be genuine except for his words about Caesar. He ought to speak to the conspirators calmly, in a way that lets the audience know that he is simply biding his time. Mark Antony is really nothing more than a snake that is waiting to go in for the kill at this point. He requests to speak at Caesar’s funeral, and Brutus lets him. Strike three for Brutus.

I think Brutus just does not know how to reconcile what he’s done with who he is and has been. Regardless of his reasons, he has just participated in the assassination of a key political figure. He thinks he is helping Rome, but instead of keeping things firmly in his control for the good of the city until everything dies down, he tries to please those who are still alive. He should know better than to trust Mark Antony.

At Caesar’s funeral, Brutus goes into the pulpit and brings the plebeians over to his side. Everything is going just swell, until Mark Antony enters the pulpit and brings a killer speech with him.

FIRST PLEBEIAN
Methinks there is much reason in his sayings.

SECOND PLEBEIAN
If thou consider rightly of the matter,
Caesar has had great wrong.

Mark Antony knows exactly how to approach this situation. He doesn’t outright tear down the conspirators or what they have done – no, he comes in with a very calculated approach to get the plebeians on his side. He really does play them like a fiddle – did I not say that they are very easily swayed?

ANTONY
[…] It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you.
You are not wood, you are not stones, but men.
And, being men, hearing the will of Caesar,
It will inflame you; it will make you mad.
‘Tis good to know not that you are his heirs,
For if you should, O, what would come of it?

Yes, I’m sure inflaming the people is the last thing Mark Antony wants. As expected, the people absolutely lose it and begin to mutiny. All in a day’s work for Mark Antony.

It has come to battle, because there is no other way for this to end. We have Antony and Octavius versus Cassius and Brutus. But things are on edge over on the conspirators’ side, as Brutus and Cassius both feel wronged by one another. They decide to hash it out in Brutus’ tent. Their disagreement begins to escalate (I, of course, was very pleased, because I absolutely do not like Cassius).

CASSIUS
[Offering his dagger to Brutus.]
And here my naked breast; within, a heart
Dearer than Pluto’s mine, richer than gold.
If that thou be’st a Roman, take it forth.
I that denied thee gold will give my heart.
Strike as thou didst at Caesar, for I know
When thou didst hate him worst, thou lovedst him better
Than ever thou lovedst Cassius.

I took a lot of offense on Brutus’ behalf when I read those last couple of lines up there. But, then again, I was also kind of hoping that Brutus would do it so I could be done with Cassius. Brutus is not that kind of person, sadly. They make up, and we find out why Brutus has been a little bit on edge.

BRUTUS
O Cassius, I am sick of many griefs.

CASSIUS
Of your philosophy you make no use
If you give place to accidental evils.

BRUTUS
No man bears sorrow better. Portia is dead.

Oh, Brutus. Poor Brutus. This is literally the worst time for this to have happened. He is absolutely distraught – and there’s that softness that is so unbecoming of a warrior again.

At night, Brutus is kind enough to let his servant get some sleep. He himself is restless, and is visited by the ghost of Caesar. This is a classic bad omen, and almost a sign of Brutus’ guilt. Brutus acted on a hunch that day in the senate house – but his hunch could very well have been wrong. I wonder if he knows this.

Over on the other side, Antony and Octavius are in prime position to win. After all, Caesar’s ghost wasn’t visiting them, now was it?

OCTAVIUS
Upon the right hand, I; keep thou the left.

ANTONY
Why do you cross me in this exigent?

OCTAVIUS
I do not cross you, but I will do so.

Things aren’t exactly sunshine and rainbows over here either, and we get a taste of the clash between Mark Antony and Octavius that will follow us into Antony and Cleopatra.

Brutus knows that his hour has home – Caesar’s ghost appearing was proof enough. He runs on his sword and dies. Goodbye, Brutus. I liked you, but I wished you’d had more common sense. The moral of the story is: if you’re going to be a conspirator, commit to the role.

We get this reaction to Brutus’ death, which may come as a surprise:

ANTONY
This was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.
He only in a general honest thought
And common good to all made one of them.
His life was gentle and the elements
So mixed in him that nature might stand up
And say to all the world “This was a man.”

That’s what I’ve been saying, Mark Antony! Obviously, Brutus and the others could not be allowed to get away with Caesar’s assassination. However, Brutus was still the best of them. He was completely unselfish in his involvement, and found himself in a tangled web that he was unable to get out of.

Well, that’s that for Julius Caesar! I really did enjoy this play, and I’m a bit sad that I wasn’t taught it at school. But that’s what this Shakespeare marathon is for, right?

Hamlet is next. Let’s hope I can get through it without any trouble.