Julius Caesar, A Ghost Story

My full review of this production will appear in The Shakespeare Newsletter

It was a dark and stormy night. Two conspirators were standing ’round a flashlight. They had a prophecy to fulfill. But once that was done, they didn’t know what would happen next.

Given the glut of productions of Julius Caesar with political undertones, performed in sharp suits and dress uniforms, it’s obviously a play that speaks to a contemporary political sensibility. Well, of course it does: it’s about a pack of schemers, filled with characters who are admirable in one scene and despicable in the next, one that refuses to declare its moral or political loyalties. Except Brutus, of course. That’s clear, at least: whether what he does is right or wrong, Brutus is a good guy at heart.

The lack of ambiguity surrounding Brutus’s role in the drama–  anguished moral center– makes it easiest to shape a production around him, to use him as the fulcrum for answering what has become the play’s central production question: why is Julius Caesar named after a character who dies in act three? And why does the play keep going after he dies?

Back to the dark and stormy night. Comets streak the sky, and wild animals roam the streets. The women, especially, are troubled with bad dreams. It’s a scene that can seem deeply strange. There’s a lion wandering the streets of the city? Isn’t Casca kind of a doofus? Are we meant to take him at his word?

But go back one scene, to the light and sunny festival day that begins Julius Caesar. In Shana Cooper’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, we begin with a reminder that the first scene is not about an aimless mob, but a religious festival. The revelers are masked and clad in white (a stark constrast to the other characters’ contemporary dress) and they chant and dance. In the next scene, no one thinks it strange that a Soothsayer– or someone claiming to be one– should appear. They only take issue with what she has to say.

Superstition and ritual course through the play, and Cooper and choreographer Erica Chong Shuch highlight them with gestures, with prayers, with sequences of stylized movement between scenes, all of which combine to create a world where the descriptions of lions whelping in the streets of Rome, of slaves with hands consumed in magical flames, do not seem out of place. And where the appearance of a ghost seems almost inevitable.

Maybe Julius Caesar is a ghost story. The best ghost stories, after all, have two parts: how the ghost died, and what it did after. On a dark and stormy night, two conspirators were standing ’round a flashlight. They gathered together their friends and made a plot: to kill the man they feared would make himself a king. All the signs seemed to point in their favor– the flaming heavens, the words of soothsayers, the dreams of women. So they do it, and think they have done right.

But then they trust the wrong man, and he raises a mob that drives them from the city. They raise their armies, prepare to fight. But it’s all going wrong: their messages are misdelivered, their words are misconstrued. Their wives die. Their enemies grow strong. And floating above it all, the promise of a ghost: I’ll see you again.

Cooper’s soldiers paint their faces with clay, with careful, ritual movements. In the production’s language of rhythmic, repetitive movement, battle looks like prayer looks like prophecy. They are all one physical language– pieces of the same puzzle, stations on the same journey. The story’s momentum is not (just) towards assassination, but to the final battlefield at Philippi, to see what the ghost they have made will do.

 

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