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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Julius Caesar at Folger

"Et tu, Brute?"
Everyone has his (or her) idea. I want to believe my idea is closer to Shakespeare's original intention, but Robert Richmond probably would disagree.

One of the things I disagree with with Richmond is Cassius. He is played with an evil air, flailing his hands and arms like a villain, exuding spite in his condemnation of the tyrant. My friend who went to see the play with me said that Cassius is often interpreted as an Iago-like character. I was, like, no! Cassius is not a villain. He is a radical, an agitator, an extremist, but a wise one who knows that a radical does not win over the masses. Therefore he needs Brutus, the most honorable and trusted Roman senator, on his side. And Brutus is ideologically against Caesar the would-be emperor from the start. Cassius only needs to convince him that assassination is the only way. Cassius talks passionately about his cause; there is no sign to indicate he does not mean it. In the end he dies heroically on the battlefield. He is no Iago.

This issue goes deeper into the heart of the play itself. Between Caesar/Antony and the Senators, Shakespeare takes no side whatsoever. Both sides wholeheartedly believe their own righteousness and neither side is portrayed as malicious or weaselly. Caesar is written with signs of potential tyranny, but then the conspirators swarm and stab him to death (they have reasons for that, too). Nobody is saintly or whitewashed. Here Shakespeare truly splits down in the middle. Just because Antony and Octavius win and Brutus and Cassius lose in the end, it is no indication of where the writer's sympathies lie. People instinctively associate virtue with victory. Not Shakespeare. Certainly not in this play. Unfortunately this production's sympathy tilts in favor of Caesar/Antony and against the senators. It's a misstep in my opinion.

Perhaps it is not entirely true that Shakespeare takes no side. His sympathy clearly lies with Brutus. Brutus is (as GRRM calls) the viewpoint character for the whole thing. In a play otherwise filled with testosterone and politics, we see the tender domestic moments between Brutus and his wife --- which is botched in this production, as both my friend and I agree. Brutus chooses to murder his friend to save the republic and democracy. He is the example of "the human heart in conflict with itself." He is true and noble to the core. He wins battles and is gentle to his wife and his page. When Antony says Brutus is "the noblest of Roman of them all," he is speaking for the author. But look where honor and noble qualities get him, poor Brutus. The public can be bribed with a few pretty words and coins --- this is democracy for you. Caesar is dead but dictators immediately follow and senators are killed off. He is the quintessential tragic hero, because he represents the selfless courage, but it's all a waste.

If that is life, why not live like Jack Falstaff?

Hence my final complaint about this production. Brutus, played adequately but too quietly by the English actor Anthony Cochrane, lacks the presence and inner conflicts to become the center of the play.

*****

There is no shortage of violence in Shakespearean plays. This one is full of close-range stabbings. Not only do they stab Caesar, but a few other characters stab themselves too. The lines are littered with references to the gut. It's all very visceral.

In the middle of the assassination scene, which by the way was staged not too bloody and lacked a viciousness, an image appeared in my mind: A bright sunny morning, on the Forum in Rome, on the stone-paved square before the senate, a group of old and middle-aged men descend upon an old man and stab him wherever they can get a blade in, like a murder of crows swarming a corpse. Blood is spewing everywhere, splattered on the senators' faces and togas. Then, just as quickly, they disperse from the body, standing aside and staring at the lifeless pile of rag soaked in blood, trembling with fear and adrenalin. Dead silence falls upon the Forum.

Stabbing is such an intimate act of killing. It's also such an Italian thing.

Politics has always been soaked in blood and death, including many public ones. We modern people have forgotten the bodies hanging on market squares and the heads on spikes on city walls.

*****

I imagine it would be very difficult to stage a very bloody and visceral public stabbing scene. Obviously you can't stop the play to mop up all the fake blood poured on stage. Yet without blood poured all over the stage, somehow it's just not very horrible.

Overall this production is oddly stiff. My friend calls the staging "static." Characters do not move around a lot and rarely touch each other. They keep their distance. I also do not like the costume. In the first half, they wear vaguely medieval clothes. In the second half, the war scenes were moved to World War I military wear. Richmond explained that he was influenced by the WWI memorial activities in UK earlier this year. I don't think it's very effective. In my mind, everyone in the play should wear white togas and, when necessary, bear their flesh. It would cost less. The blood on white toga would be so much more in your face. The production is too English and not enough Italian.

I don't understand the urge to "modernize" the staging and costumes in many Shakespearean plays. The attempts to scream at the audience that Shakespeare is still relevant today to them are rather silly. If you can't hear and see the plain universal relevance in the words, you are wasting your time.

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