Review: Julius Caesar

There are just so many quotable lines in Julius Caesar. For a play that’s done relatively infrequently, it’s really remarkable how fast and thick the memorable moments come: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” “Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once,” “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears,” “Et tu, Brute?” and so many more. And it can be hard to stay focused on a play, and what the actor is actually doing in the moment, when the lines keep setting off little pings of recognition in the back of your head. 

But the Globe’s current production goes a long way towards making one forget all that. Of course you’re never really going to stop thinking that “the noblest Roman of them all” sounds really familiar, but Dominic Dromgoole’s dynamic, continually engaging production, and especially its charismatic central performances, will at least keep you from thinking about it for too long. 

At the center of it all is Tom McKay’s Brutus, a sensitive and thoughtful Roman senator who has come to the painful realization that his close friend and political ally, Julius Caesar, has just gotten a bit too powerful. His Brutus strikes all the right notes: compelling, compassionate, outwardly stoic but deeply feeling, and just a little too good for the sordid world he’s living in. 

The two primary champions of the grimy politics and utilitarianism that Brutus can barely conceive, much less embrace, are Cassius and Mark Antony. Anthony Howell’s Cassius is fierce and proud, and plainly unskilled at masking his thoughts in the way that success in politics demands. He is more than eager, though, to goad Brutus into spearheading a movement he knows he himself cannot lead. At the other pole is Mark Antony, charmingly played by Luke Thompson, who embraces the grinning irreverence that causes Brutus and the other conspirators (with Cassius the notable and vocal exception) to dismiss Mark Antony out of hand. But as soon as he has the opportunity to seize some power of his own, Thompson masterfully flips the switch to swelling rage and genuine sorrow… though not so genuine that he’s unable or unwilling to deploy his tears for strategic political use. 

Antony can hide anything– Brutus and Cassius, nothing. Though their final clash is on the battlefield, in the world of politics, it seems clear who is destined to succeed. 

The man himself is played by George Irving, whose occasionally comic pomposity falls away in tantalizing flashes of humanity with his wife, with Antony, and of course in his final moments. The conspirators don’t necessarily seem wrong to suspect this Caesar of harboring delusions of godhood, but the brutality of his murder (and, indeed, of all the violence in the show) robs the republicans of any moral high ground they may have had. 

Julius Caesar is the longest of the Globe’s currently running shows, but the pace and energy never flag. Every scene feels essential in a way that Caesar’s somewhat episodic interludes, especially in the second act, sometimes do not. Worthy of mention are the murder of William Mannering’s Cinna the poet, which prompted actual screams from the audience; Joe Jameson as Octavius Caesar, whose undisguised disdain nicely foreshadows the future breakdown of his and Antony’s alliance; Christopher Logan’s Casca revealing that he only plays the fool; and Dromgoole’s haunting use of music and three Fate-like women (who of whom also play Portia and Calphurnia) who appear to herald important deaths. 

Dromgoole and the cast keep a constant eye on their interactions with the audience, with adds an essential current of energy to a play that is so much about the characters’ relationships with the people of Rome. The groundlings especially are perfectly placed to join in the Lupercal celebrations of the first scene, to become Antony and Brutus’s wavering crowds. It is this electric connection that helps to keep the play so exciting, and generates a feeling of intimate, personal involvement with the events onstage. 

In general, Dromgoole makes perfect use of the unique space on offer, not only with the way the actors engage the audience and often move through them, but in quick and seamless transitions that keep the scenes in constant motion. He veers seamlessly between realistic violence and impressionistic music (composed by Claire van Kampen) and battle scenes. 

I’ve complained before, and heard it said, that Julius Caesar is a broken-backed play: everything cool happens in the first three acts, and the last two feel extraneous. Not here. James Shapiro writes in A Year In the Life of Shakespeare: 1599 how the civil strife of acts 4 and 5 would have seemed, to an Elizabethan audience, a natural and necessary extension of the assassination of act 3, whereas a modern audience member or reader is perhaps more inclined to see an assassination as one event and the war as another. Dromgoole and his excellent cast pull taut emotional lines through the play, and the relationship between Brutus and Cassius becomes the spine around which everything else coalesces. The play could not possibly feel complete without following these two to the bitter end. 

As a wanna-be scholar, I know I’m supposed to be skeptical of claims of Shakespeare’s timelessness. But there is something that feels terribly contemporary about the questions of love, friendship, and politics swimming around in this very exciting, very refreshing production. 

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