Shakespeare’s plays have the power to evoke every measure of emotion and thought, yet this production managed to be neither emotionally or intellectually fulfilling.
Julius Caesar resonates so deeply with our Western understanding of democracy, power and the will of the people yet despite director Warner’s unrelenting and predictable references to Iraq, the events on stage still somehow remained completely detached from the recent situation.
The Donmar’s Hecuba and the recent RSC King Lear allowed for the fact that the audience were capable of making the connections for themselves, between the play in question and the current political climate, with their subtle and thought-provoking evocations of the Iraq conflict and the Balkan power struggles; this new version, however, forces the message in a way that is almost offensive.
This production has been praised for its epic nature – for the sheer number of actors involved – and the opening scenes of Caesar’s return truly evokes a sense of a people who seem united in their love for their leader as well as illustrating the dependency they have on their political system. Warner also effectively uses this chorus to create the social and political division at Caesar’s funeral oration and highlight the fickle nature of public opinion. One would expect such a mass to rouse some form of passion in the audience at these points but this is just not the case. Warner’s take on the battle of Philippi is also rather predictable and clichd, failing to in any way convey the personal tragedy of conflict.
The saving grace of this production comes from its central actors, who seem to have a better grasp of the play than the director, and who make their scenes relevant both to themselves and to the audience. It’s a shame that Fiona Shaw and Ginny Holder had such little time on stage because with so few words they managed to convey so much: Portia and Calphurnia are two capable, intelligent women denied their own political voice, forced to witness the deaths of their beloved and the destruction of their ideals.
As Caesar and Antony, John Shrapnel and Ralph Fiennes both give fine performances as two men driven by ambition and their insatiable appetite for glory; Fiennes, in particular, gives a self-indulgent quality to Antony’s ambitious behaviour that is frightening to see in a man of such huge political stature.
In complete comparison, Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Cassius was egotistical and uninspiring. He is renowned for his Shakespearean roles yet overacts his part to the extreme and seems more interested in his own performance than the central issues of such a complex play. His was a mediocre performance, tainting a play with such potential to move and inspire.
Credit must be given, however, to the numerous actors that played the senators and in particular Struan Rodger as Casca and Clifford Rose as Cicero. Shakespeare does not allow much dialogue to explore the complexities of these characters’ emotional and political situations yet the actors provide an impressive and intense presence on stage. Anton Lesser’s Brutus was a powerfully executed performance. He gave real depth and complexity to the character and his moral and political dilemmas presented are reasonable and poignant.
Julius Caesar is not performed that often and Warner had the potential to amaze. The production, overall, is worth seeing for the handful of excellent performances but there have been many recent productions drawn from Shakespeare and other classical plays that have engaged with world issues in a more effective and thought-provoking manner.