Julius Caesar, presented at the
Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario, 6 June–17 October 2009.
M. G. Aune
M. G. Aune. "Review of Julius Caesar, presented at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario, 6 June–17 October 2009." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-1/aunejuli.htm>.
MacDonald. Designer: David Boechler. Lighting Designer: Christopher Dennis.
Sound Designer: Peter McBoyle. Fight Designer: Daniel Levinson. Video
Designer: Sean Nieuwenhuis. With Ben Carlson (Marcus Brutus), Jonathan Goad
(Mark Antony), Tom Rooney (Cassius), Geraint Wyn Davies (Julius Caesar), Dion
Johnstone (Octavius Caesar), Yanna McIntosh (Calphurnia), Cara Ricketts
(Portia), Michael Spencer-Davis (Caska).
Dion Johnstone as Octavius Caesar and Jonathan Goad as Mark Antony. Photo: David Hou. Courtesy of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
- At least as well
as the Romans, the early modern English knew the power of visual propaganda to
influence crowds. Shakespeare makes good use of this knowledge in Julius
Caesar but he also brings out the human cost of such propaganda, making the
play of particular interest to an early 21st century culture
saturated with politicized imagery. This production at the Stratford
Shakespeare Festival explored these issues, setting the play in a roughly
modern time and employing modern technology, but retaining Shakespeare’s
language and Roman pagan beliefs.
Rome of this Julius Caesar was spare, clean, and cold, featuring six
square columns of brown marble on a raised platform upstage with stairs that
descended to stage level. This same set functioned, with some rearrangement,
for the streets of Rome, Brutus’ orchard, and Caesar’s home. The second half
of the play used the same basic features, but decorated as if they were ruined
by war. The
plebes were largely young and attired in casual, modern street clothes.
Soldiers, nearly always present, were in white with red sashes and berets. The
senators and tribunes dressed in what appeared to be a combination of toga and
business suit: shiny satin business suits, with single-breasted coats, matching
skirts and trousers, and contrasting sashes. Caesar wore a striking white,
military version of the suit, decorated with epaulets, medals, and braids.
opening scenes swiftly delineated the world of the play. Before the curtain
opened and while the audience entered, a hovering, three-dimensional profile of
the historical Caesar was projected on to the curtain. Just as the lights went
down, the image changed to the actor Wyn Davies’ profile and disappeared.
Behind a scrim, a crowd of adoring plebes and soldiers surrounded Caesar,
running riotously back and forth, as haunting piano and cello music played.
Two figures brought out a sacrificial lamb and the crowd tore it to pieces as
they entered, Flavius and Marullus were heavily outnumbered by the drunken
plebes remaining on stage. The tribunes’ sober manner and elegant clothes set
them immediately apart from the unruly, casually dressed throng. Marullus’
question about the Carpenter’s “best apparel” (1.1.8) punctuated these
sartorial differences. Once the commoners dispersed, Flavius turned to the
three banners of Caesar’s profile that hung between the columns, tore one down,
and gathered it to him. When he turned around, he saw a soldier look at him
impassively, pull out a pad of paper, and silently make some notes. The moment
gave Flavius pause before he hurriedly exited and likewise struck the audience
as a chilling and familiar gesture of government surveillance.
Rome was a mixture of cultures and media. The video projection and banners
established the importance of visual propaganda. The bold colors and profiles
inevitably brought to mind fascist visual rhetoric of the early 20th
century. Other nods to totalitarianism included the crowds’ raised fists when
Caesar spoke, and a gesture he made that looked very much like a fascist
salute. The soldier’s note-taking reinforced this idea. Commentators
sometimes observe that within the play, Caesar does nothing that might justify
his murder. It is instead, the fear of what he might do that motivates
the conspirators. But this moment of surveillance and the constant presence of
uniformed soldiers suggested that behind Caesar’s public face, sinister forces
worked to maintain his power. The characters were aware of it. When talking
to Brutus and Cassius, Caska evoked the soldier’s notebook when he said
gravely, “Marullus and Flavius, for pulling scarfs off Caesar’s images, are put
to silence” (1.2.285-86).
production did not entirely confine itself to the 20th century,
however. The devouring of the sacrifice in the first scene showed the
importance of pagan practices. They were reiterated in 2.2 when servants
brought the augurers’ beast, a deer, on stage so that Caesar could probe its
body himself to confirm the absence of a heart. Numerous other small rituals
appeared throughout the play. Cassius brought a metal briefcase containing
daggers to the meeting with the conspirators. As he distributed them each
conspirator ceremoniously held the dagger over his heart in a silent pledge.
When the senators met, they briefly faced the audience, crossed their arms over
their chests and bowed slightly. In the context of the 20th century
elements, the paganism, with its ritualized theatricalism took on its own
connotations of propaganda. Unlike the banners and video projection, however
the rituals constituted a kind of participatory paganism.
- Modern technology appeared again in the second half of the play.
After the interval, the curtain rose to reveal Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus
discussing their alliance and their next move. A projection screen hung behind
them, slightly upstage. A map of the Roman Empire was projected onto the stage
floor in front of the screen and Antony and Octavius walked over it as they
talked. A feed from a video camera above the stage, pointing down at the
actors, was projected onto the screen. As the actors walked across the map and
gestured at it, the audience could look down on them and see about what and
where they were talking. Behind the screen, unlit, the set of the first half
of the play looked war-ravaged. Several columns had toppled, rubble covered
the stage, and half a dozen dead soldiers lay among the ruins. In their
arrogance and their engagement with the video projection, neither Octavius nor
Antony noticed the wreckage or corpses behind them.
- The map, and the characters’ interaction, with it had a distancing
effect, evoking sets used by news programs to illustrate election returns or
weather patterns. It fit well with the sense that this Rome was a visual
culture and politicians used it to their advantage. Textually, it had curious
connotations. On the one hand, it recalled Cassius’ characterization of
Caesar: “he doth bestride the narrow world / Like a colossus, and we petty men
/ Walk under his huge legs and peep about / To find ourselves dishonorable
graves” (1.2.135-38), suggesting that Antony would assume Caesar’s role as a
conqueror and a tyrant. At the same time, it also foreshadowed Antony’s demise
and Cleopatra’s description of his lost glory in Antony and Cleopatra,
“His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear'd arm / Crested the world” (5.2.82-83).
By activating this collection of related ideas, the video screen was an
effective dramatic device, literally giving the audience another view of
Antony. In addition, by blocking the audience’s view of most of the upstage
wreckage, it brought to mind television news programs and how their strategies
of presenting news inevitably occlude the entire picture. At the same time,
the video projection was also distracting. Because it was the only use of
video aside from the opening sequence, it stood out as a novelty. Two or three
other uses of video would have made the device more familiar and more
the scene ended, the video screen rose into the flies, the full stage was
illuminated and actors who had appeared to be dead soldiers came to life as
part of Brutus’ camp. Wind and snow effects began, and the soldiers in their
baggy gray camouflage uniforms acted cold and uncomfortable. Brutus had traded
his plain brown suit for a plain gray uniform without decorations or insignia.
His paunch and weary demeanor suggested that he was not a professional soldier,
but an idealistic senator doing what he felt was best for Rome. His
paternalism behavior also appeared in his treatment of Lucius and his
insistence that two of the shivering soldiers, Varro and Claudius, share his
tent. If Antony and Octavius were willing to cynically manipulate the media
and the crowds for their own ends, Brutus eschewed these means, strictly
concerned for the good of the individuals around him.
soldiers’ suffering and Brutus’ recognition of it foregrounded one of the
production’s main themes, the suffering caused by the machinations of political
leaders and mindless mobs. Shakespeare provides a shocking example in 3.3 when
the crowd dismembers Cinna the poet, just because he has the same name as a
conspirator. The production anticipated and contextualized this moment as
ritualistic in the opening scene when the mob tore the sacrifice apart. The
bloody sacrificial deer that Caesar examined not only foreshadowed his death,
but also showed that the Romans were guilty of the wasteful death of animals as
well as humans.
- Brutus the ordinary man seemed to be a focus of this theme, noble
and at the same time naïve about the power of public image. Compared to Caesar
and Mark Antony, he was not slovenly, but uninterested in his own appearance.
He reacted emotionally to almost everything that occurred. Genuine horror
struck him and he fell to his knees in 2.1 when Portia revealed her “voluntary
wound . . . in the thigh,” inflicted to affirm her worthiness to keep Brutus’
counsel. Even Brutus’ death was paternal. Rather than running on to his sword
as Stratos held it, he grabbed the soldier and pulled him close in an extended
arrogant and martial nature was emphasized, contrasting sharply with the homely
Brutus. In a black uniform, Antony strutted through the second half of the
play and flirted openly with the female soldiers. The men’s armies reflected
their differences. While Brutus’ army was uniformed simply and functionally,
Antony’s troops were anonymous and menacing. Faceless, they wore black
helmets, opaque faceplates, and black plastic armor. Even standing still, they
projected auras of potential violence. In most of the battle scenes, Antony’s
soldiers’ greater numbers and black uniforms created a sense of riot police
violently putting down a rebellious mob.
- In the
play’s final scene, Antony and Octavius, surrounded by their faceless soldiers,
delivered Brutus’ eulogy sincerely. After Octavius’s speech, the curtain fell,
leaving the theater in a somewhat unanticipated subdued mood. The play’s
surveillance and paganism had created an expectation that the post-Julius
Caesar Rome was not going to be much different. Triumphant Octavius and Antony
would simply pick up where Caesar left off, decorating Rome with banners of
their profiles and presiding over sacrifices in their honor. The abrupt
ending, however, seemed to suggest that Brutus’ actions and death had changed
something, however trivial.
- This implied disruption of a potentially repeated narrative reminds
us that the play itself is a repeated narrative. Shakespeare adapted Thomas
North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, itself written nearly one
hundred fifty years after Caesar died. Each time the story is retold, the new
teller finds new ways to mediate its basic elements. Shakespeare, for example,
transformed a prose narrative into a play. This production mediated that play
into a type of postmodern allegory of media manipulation. The ideas of loss,
ambition, and cynicism that interested Shakespeare were clearly communicated
and resonated with recent history with assistance from the subtle linking of
technological media manipulation and pagan ritual performance.
William. The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston
and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2010-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).