Julius Caesar is close to the top of the list of our favorite Shakespeare plays, but we’d never seen it performed until last weekend. The show at the Stratford Festival was tight, tense, and immensely satisfying, and we saw more in the characters of Brutus, Cassius, and Caesar than we ever knew was there.
We suppose there’s no danger of giving away the plot. The folks at Stratford evidently think people know the story, too; they left the usual plot summary out of the program. (We renew our complaint that the cost-cutters at Stratford are printing this year’s programs on cheap paper stock in an odd-sized (8 1/2 by 10 3/4) format that doesn’t fit our collection of programs.)
So to review, here’s the story. Around 40 B.C., Julius Caesar (Geraint Wyn Davies) has defeated his rival Pompey and has become virtual dictator of Rome. Jealous of Caesar, a number of Roman senators, led by Cassius (Tom Rooney), are plotting regime change. The conspirators realize, however, that without the support of the widely respected, high-minded Brutus (Ben Carlson), they are sure to be villified for taking Caesar down. Cassius persuades Brutus that, for the good of Rome, Caesar must die.
On the Ides of March, Cassius, Brutus, and other Roman senators stab Caesar to death. Against the advice of Cassius, Brutus unwisely permits Caesar’s protege, Mark Antony (Jonathan Goad) to speak at Caesar’s funeral. Antony’s oration inflames the Romans against the conspirators. Mobs riot in the streets, and a civil war breaks out, in which Brutus and Cassius are uneasy allies. It all ends with a final battle at Phillippi.
As well as we know the play, we still felt the suspense keenly. Would Brutus yield to Cassius’s flattery and join the conspirators? Would Caesar be warned in time? Would the conspirators take Cassius’s advice and assassinate Mark Antony as well?
Domestic tension, as well: would Brutus ever tell his distraught wife Portia (Cara Ricketts) what’s going on? Would Caesar heed the soothsayer and stay home on the Ides of March, as his wife Calpurnia pleads? Our own wife, who is not politically minded, thought the moral of the play was that husbands should listen to their wives.
We couldn’t have asked for a better cast for our first Julius Caesar on stage. Geraint Wyn Davies has only a few scenes, but he is positively masterful as a ruler who has begun to believe that he is, indeed, god-like; no wonder Brutus could be persuaded that such a Caesar needed to be stopped. Best of all was Tom Rooney, with his bright-eyed intensity, steely sense of purpose, and ramrod stature. We knew without Caesar’s telling us that Cassius had “a lean and hungry look.”
Ben Carlson speaks the language of Shakespeare naturally, conversationally, and with effortless diction. He and Rooney are well paired; the best parts of this Julius Caesar were Brutus’s scenes with Cassius. The famous “quarrel” scene was just short of perfection (we dissected the quarrel in this recent post); it fell short only in that we felt that Brutus would, for maximum impact, have told Cassius to his face that he had “an itching palm.” Instead, Carlson delivered the accusation in an offhanded manner as he poured a drink across the stage from Cassius.
Until last weekend, we never fully appreciated the emotional power of the “I am sick of many griefs” scene later in Act IV, Scene 3, in which we (and Cassius) learn of Portia’s suicide. Carlson, Rooney, and Kevin Blanchard (as Messala) play this scene with delicacy and humanity.
We were a little disappointed, however, in Jonathan Goad’s Mark Antony. We have seen Goad described as Stratford’s Johnny Depp, and indeed Goad’s what-me-worry? approach to the part reminded us of the hero of Pirates of the Caribbean. But it didn’t suit here, with the Roman empire at stake. Surely no confrontation in Julius Caesar should bristle more than the scene immediately after the death of Caesar, when Mark Antony comes face to face with the conspirators. But this Antony seemed more annoyed than angry with the conspirators; he hardly seemed to fear for his life. The scene slowed the play’s momentum.
And Antony’s “This was the noblest Roman of them all” monologue, after the death of Brutus, also fell flat. It ends, of course, with Antony’s pronouncement on Brutus: “This was a man!” The line needs to be delivered portentously, with equal emphasis on “this” and “man”. But Goad accented only the first word: “THIS was a man.” It sounded more like a throwaway line.
Still, Goad delivered one of the play’s most thrilling moments with his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. For this scene, director James MacDonald resourcefully embedded members of the cast in the audience, they made us feel part of the dangerous mob ourselves. The effect was electric. We had always assumed that Antony began his speech when the noise of the crowd died down. But Goad made us understand that “lend me your ears” (which he was obliged to shout over the din) was uttered in order to get the mob to shut up and listen.
From the supporting cast, we especially enjoyed the performances of Michael Spencer-Davis (as Casca), Cara Ricketts (as Portia), John Innes (as Cicero), and Dion Johnstone (as Octavius Caesar). Skye Brandon was superb as the unfortunate Cinna the poet, whose appearance and rapid demise (the finest cameo role of any play we can think of) seemed even more shocking than the assassination of Caesar himself.
The costumes and the props did not, frankly, make sense. The most that can be said for them is that we didn’t find them terribly distracting. In the first act, the Romans all wore snazzy suits and colorful ensembles (including some very short skirts) that vaguely reminded us of the Berlin street scenes, circa 1914, of Ernest Kirchner. In the second act, the officers in Mark Antony’s camp wore twentieth-century military uniforms; those in Cassius’s and Brutus’s camp wore baseball caps. And the soldiers all carried semi-automatic rifles. We missed the point of these “modern” touches. We know exactly the time period in which this particular play takes place; it wasn’t the early 20th century.
Ben Carlson deserves credit for remaining unflustered under trying circumstances. During one of his early scenes, quite close to the stage, an extremely loud cellphone went off and played a long passage from Mozart’s C major piano sonata, K. 545. The owner had trouble getting it under control. Carlson never batted an eye as we all finally heard the belltones of a cellphone being turned off.
Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:
Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)
The musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (see this post)
Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (see this post)
The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)
The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)
What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)
The musical West Side Story (see this post)