Julius Caesar: the recent production by Bell Shakespeare Company reviewed by Frances Dharmalingham.
A small group of Shakespeare Club members attended a performance of Julius Caesar at the Heath Ledger Theatre.
The first part of the play, with its glimpses of Caesar’s disturbing ambition and the plotters’ reasons to assassinate him, is challenging because it necessarily involves much talking: a consideration of political ideas, mingled with very personal feelings, particularly in the long dialogue between Cassius and Brutus. Cassius, played by Nick Simpson-Deeks, spoke with admirable clarity as he presented his arguments, but his slow delivery reduced the urgency of the situation. The actor was perhaps aware of possible school audiences: they would certainly have been able to note all the important steps in Cassius’s argument. For most of the scene, he and Brutus were standing too far apart, on opposite sides of the wide stage, which limited the required intensity and intimacy of the conspiracy. Brutus (Ivan Donato) established immediately his sleep-deprived confusion and desperate worry, but engaged in irritatingly repetitive, and therefore distracting, gestures. His speech was frequently muffled.
Caesar was played by Kenneth Ransom. His gestures were suitably imperious, and his commanding height was an advantage: his voice, however, lacked the depth and resonance which would have imbued his speech with a more convincing authority.
The central part of the play, showing the events of the Ides of March, was engrossing and powerful. The actual murder of Caesar was skilfully choreographed, almost in slow motion, as one by one the senators took their turns to stab him and he finally faced Brutus for the death blow. The actors sustained the tension well as their characters came to terms with what they had done. I had some difficulty, however, with the use of a bucket for ‘let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood’ and later, when Mark Antony presented the bucket to the crowd as Caesar’s remains.
The exchanges between Brutus, Cassius and Antony effectively revealed the differences in their characters, which became even clearer in the great speeches to the people. It was a surprise that the interval fell between Brutus’s and Antony’s speeches; we were all waiting in keen anticipation for Antony’s riposte, and suddenly we had to wait a lot longer! I wondered at the time whether this was a good idea, but it certainly was. Mark Antony burst back on the scene after the interval, and gave an absolutely masterly display of subtle oratory. Brutus had adopted a somewhat defensive defiance when he addressed the crowd; it was fortunate that Antony did not immediately follow him, as it would have seemed that he had little to do to win the people’s favour over to his side.
Throughout the play Mark Antony was outstanding. Sara Zwangobani’s emotional range, vocal control, and clarity of diction allowed her to reveal every aspect of Antony’s character. As well as the great speech to the people, Antony’s lamentation over Caesar’s corpse was deeply affecting, and built to a finale of powerful ferocity. The actor displayed fine judgement in handling the modulations of mood following this, with the character immediately turning to war business, planning to contact Octavius.
The third section of the play, the aftermath of all that happens on the Ides of March, can sometimes seem confused and a little disappointing after such dramatic action. Our little group from the club all agreed that the entire second half of the performance was much more engrossing than the first.
I had only one quibble. I have always felt that the most dreadful death in the whole play is that of Cinna the poet, murdered for no reason but that he shares the same name as a conspirator. This follows immediately after Antony’s stirring up of the plebeians, and serves to illustrate both his prophecy that Caesar’s spirit will “cry Havoc” and his warning to Octavius that “here is a mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome, no Rome of safety…” and the scene illustrates all the horror accompanying the loss of civil order and the breakdown of the rule of law.
Several valuable minutes were taken up in creating a set for homeless street-dwellers, with numbers of mattresses (brand-new and difficult to manage!) and other accessories, before the action could begin. This broke the momentum built in the preceding scene, and detracted from the shock of the murder, for me. The set really was unnecessary, since it was immediately (and again, obtrusively) dismantled, causing needless distraction and delay again.
From that point on, however, things moved fast and we had a very fine quarrel scene between Cassius and Brutus. Here there was the necessary fire and energy accompanied by clear communication of the ideas and feelings of the characters. Brutus handled the sudden change of mood with most convincing laughter, and the transition to the sad news of Portia’s death was genuinely touching.
The appearance of Caesar’s ghost was suitably ethereal, but the device (? a microphone?) used to make his speech more supernatural unfortunately made it difficult to understand his words. This became a greater problem when the ghost returned in the last scene, and replaced the several characters who are usually asked by Brutus to hold his sword, for his suicide. This might have been justified by reference to Brutus’s earlier exclamation after Cassius’s death: ‘O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet, Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords In our own proper entrails.’ However I was doubtful about the wisdom of taking the words so literally as to have Caesar actually physically stabbing Brutus.
It was noteworthy that, bearing in mind the requirements of gender equality, the cast consisted of even numbers of men and women. This required all but one woman to play some male roles. Interestingly, the characters all retained their male names as given by Shakespeare, but (since they were dressed as women, and clearly being played by, and as, women) they were referred to with feminine pronouns. This took some getting used to! I sympathise with any female actor’s wish to play any part in the play, and we have to admit that most of the best Shakespearean roles are for men, but I believe that the performers should attempt to act the parts as written: i.e. to present the characters as men, seriously, just as the young male actors of the sixteenth century would have approached their roles as women. I am sure there must be many different points of view on this subject.
The play’s setting was non-specific: the strange but adaptable construction which served as the set effectively suggested the back veranda of Brutus’s house, the steps of the Forum, the mountains of the battlefield, and so on. The costumes were mainly jeans and trainers, making it at times difficult to distinguish between characters. There was some attempt to separate the patricians from the plebeians, with Calpurnia, Octavius and Antony wearing more “fashionable” clothes than most of the others. As to the period in which these events might have been happening: I thought perhaps it was a few decades in the future. The sound design was interesting, using discordant music at times to heighten the drama, though sometimes at the risk of drowning the speech. Instead of vocal shouts of the crowd during the long speeches, these unidentifiable noises filled the pauses and created a clever impression of the sometimes inhuman nature of a large and unpredictable horde. The lighting was well used to focus on the action at any given point, leaving large areas of the stage only dimly visible; this helped the small cast to create the illusion of much greater numbers of characters, just out of sight.
Although the performance was uneven, both in terms of the actors’ skills, and the extent of the audience’s engagement in various scenes, I was left with much to think about. It certainly made me return to the script of this great play, and appreciate it all over again.