Sunday, November 17, 2013

Fascism and Folly: The Donmar Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse

Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar, imported from London’s Donmar Warehouse for a five-week run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, is the second version this year of Shakespeare’s tragedy with a prison setting. The first was Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s film Caesar Must Die, an account of an actual performance of the play by male inmates at a high-security Italian lock-up. In Lloyd’s production it’s enacted by the inhabitants of a woman’s prison. The audience gathers outside the heavy metal warehouse door for unsmiling uniformed guards to let them in, and then waits again, in their seats, for the actors to march in.

This Caesar, like Orson Welles’s famous 1937 brown-shirt adaptation, is about fascism, an idea that’s underscored by the setting but even more, intriguingly, by the all-female cast, which throws the boys’ club machismo and thuggery of Caesar and his associates into relief. Caesar (the terrific Frances Barber) is charismatic, a crowd pleaser, who’s playful with his friends. But the playfulness has an edge, his sense of irony a scary unpredictability. “Let me have men around me who are fat,” he declares as he opens a box of doughnuts, and the audience laughs appreciatively at this contemporary variation on a familiar line. But then he grabs Cassius (Jenny Jules), whose “lean and hungry look” has occasioned this declaration, pins him to a chair, shoves a doughnut in his maw, takes a bite out of it himself, and then wets his finger delicately and uses it to wipe Cassius’s mouth. The act is simultaneously a humiliation and a threat. Caesar’s men pay tribute to him by wearing cardboard masks of his face; when Cassius, Brutus (Harriet Walter) and Casca (Susan Brown) meet for a secret conference – they sit together at a table pretending to read magazines while they murmur rushed remarks – Casca reports that some men they know have been put to silence for taking down Caesar’s images.

Julius Caesar is highly unusual among Shakespeare’s tragedies: the title character is killed halfway through, and the second half is an account of the struggle for the reins of the government. It’s a treatise on power; so, of course, is Macbeth. But unlike Macbeth it isn’t centrally about the abuse of power, since Caesar’s megalomania is answered early on by the conspirators who don’t want to see Rome turned into the plaything of a single man who, in Cassius’s words, “stride[s] the wide world like a colossus.” This play is about what happens when power changes hands, a subject that overlaps with Richard II. Though the principal characters and some of the minor ones, too, are expertly drawn, it’s more theme- than character-driven, a characteristic shared by Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens but by none of the other better known tragedies. Brutus, the play’s tragic hero, is a man of integrity who urges his cohorts to emerge from the Senate after the murder holding their bloody hands aloft, proclaiming their deed to the multitude and offering their reasons; he’s an enthusiastic proponent of what we in the twenty-first-century like to call transparency. He persuades Cassius (who is unhappy about it) and the others to let Antony, who protests that he wants to remain friends with them all, eulogize Caesar. But, as Shakespeare illustrates, the world isn’t as honorable as Brutus. The playwright was always acerbic on the subject of mobs, and never more so than here, where the citizens of Rome begin by menacing Antony when he appears to deliver his funeral oration – in this production they hold him at gunpoint, and he has to grovel before them – and then are melted by his rhetoric. By the end of the few minutes it takes Antony to read his eulogy, Rome is in the throes of a civil war with Brutus and Cassius at the head of one army and Antony and Octavius Caesar (Clare Dunne), who turn out to be as brutal and imperious as Caesar was, helming the other. Shakespeare’s Brutus is an admirable and moving specimen, but he’s a hopelessly na├»ve politician – and therein lies his tragedy.

Brutus (Harriet Walter) and Portia (Clare Dunne)
Julius Caesar has never been one of my favorite plays, but first Caesar Must Die and now the Donmar rendition have made me re-evaluate it. Lloyd’s vibrant, inspiriting production and especially her actors find new colors in the language and new urgency in the interactions. When Portia (Dunne) exhorts her husband Brutus to confide in her, she’s not depressed about his remoteness; she’s angry. Reminding him that she’s Cato’s daughter, she bares her bicep, and rather than just showing the wound she’s made in her own thigh, she stabs herself in front of him as a sign of her commitment to him. She’s proving that she can be as physically brave a Roman as he is or any of his friends. It’s fascinating to see the same actress play Octavius, who is full of bravado and lacking in depth. (It’s also a little distracting, since the prisoner she’s playing is pregnant, which adds a touch of poignancy to Portia’s scene with Brutus but seems an odd note for Octavius. Dunne does a fine job with both roles.) By contrast, Calpurnia (Jade Anouka) is regal, a scarf thrown elegantly over her neck and shoulders, and when Caesar is convinced to override her pleas for him to stay at home on the Ides of March, he slaps her savagely across the face for shaming him in front of his male associates. Caesar and the conspirators make a theatrical wheeled entrance at the Senate, Caesar held aloft by these men in Caesar masks who, we know, are about to turn from his minions into his murderers. Frances Barber sits with her back to us so that for a while our only glimpse of her is through the close-ups of Caesar projected onto the warehouse walls; when the conspirators advance with their knives, the cameraman comes in close to record the breaking news.

Not all of Lloyd’s ideas work equally well: the Soothsayer (Carrie Rock), for some reason, is a little girl in a tutu carrying a doll and riding a bike. And whenever the text of Julius Caesar is interrupted, either by announcements on the prison loudspeaker or by the obscene complaints of the inmate playing Brutus that the other prisoners are making too much noise (during her recitation of the speech about Portia’s suicide), you wait impatiently for the play within the play to resume. We get the concept without having to be reminded of it, and these interludes feel extraneous.

But it’s a knockout of a show, with its rock ‘n’ roll war. And it will be quite a while before any Julius Caesar assembles a cast as strong as this one. (Walter and Barber were the only actors I recognized.) Jumbo plays Antony as a teenager with sharp eyes and unnerving political savvy. Jules’s Cassius can’t helping wearing his heart on his sleeve: his displeasure, his injuries and resentments, his impulsiveness, his tendency to anticipate the worst – he kills himself when he thinks the cause is lost, just minutes before the tide of battle turns against Octavius. But also his love for his friend Brutus, which Shakespeare explores in the great scene where they quarrel and reconcile in Brutus’ tent before meeting their adversaries on the field of Philippi. I don’t think I’ve seen a more passionate Cassius or heard a more vivid reading of his speech to Brutus about saving Caesar from drowning in the Hellespont. And Walter, her boyish bangs exposing that elongated, expressive face, is a compelling – I’d say a magnificent – Brutus. New York audiences were lucky to get a chance to see what must have been one of the highlights of the London season.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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