Tyranny is a Red Hat: Caesar at The Bridge

I have two responses to the Bridge Theatre’s Julius Caesar, and that they are only tangentially related is both a strength and a weakness of the show. Which will make sense by the end of this post, I hope.

First: I liked it! I am desperately in love with Michelle Fairley’s spiky, besuited Cassius. Though I implied otherwise in my last post, I do love a well-done female Cassius, and this is one of them, especially because she was not the token woman in the group of conspirators. The mid-storm conversation between Cassius and Casca (Adjoa Andoh) happening between two very smart, grimly determined women was really great.

Ben Whishaw’s deeply nerdy Brutus turned the character into a caricature of the much-mocked liberal elites, a highly intelligent, passionate scholar who seems to be turning his philosophy into direct action for the first time in his life, and doesn’t see why the rest of the world isn’t as fired up by complex philosophy as he is. He can’t break his nuanced, convoluted thoughts down into crowd-pleasing sound-bites, just as he can’t compromise his principles to raise money for his legions or to give ethically-dubious but necessary allies a pass. In Brutus, the play becomes about the ways in which the loftiest, most well-meant philosophy is no match for empty rhetoric that rouses the spirit.

Which is what leads into point two: I was startled to find myself not just annoyed, but actually offended by the production’s Trump-related imagery. The red hats with CAESAR embroidered on the front in a white serif font are the most obvious example; they were worn by characters, and were also available for the audience to purchase.

It offends me because the play is incapable of seriously entertaining the actual, contemporary questions that attend the potential death of an actual, contemporary figure like Trump. Reinforcing the already classist, sexist, and racist media tendency to limit discussions of Trump’s danger to hypothetical questions about American identity when there are people whose literal lives are at risk because of things he has already done and will do is shallow and counter-productive. I don’t blame Shakespeare for not raising these issues, but for a play now to insist on direct contemporary relevance and yet leave no room for considering the arguments of the people who would be/are most immediately impacted by such a leader’s policies is irresponsibly narrow. Shakespeare isn’t always the right vehicle for saying what needs to be said.

Because people have died because of Trump. More people will die because of Trump. His presidency is not a political abstraction about the powers of populism, it is a presently threatening fact. Trump and his stupid hats are not just punchy imagery to use to decorate your performance and give it some contemporary resonance, they are the banners of a movement which, within the past year, has caused innocent people to die.

This is all particularly uncomfortable when it comes to an immersive production, and raises interesting questions about immersive productions in general: what happens when you are being asked to immerse yourself in an experience you actively oppose? I refuse to even imaginatively participate in a pretend Trump rally under a symbol (that is, the hat) that, in the United States, has become an explicit emblem of prejudice and hate. I did not clap for him, and I did not cheer. I wasn’t standing in the pit, so I was able to enforce that distance for myself. I’m not sure how I would have done so down there, or if I would have been allowed to.

It is both damning and a saving grace that the Trumpian ideas basically disappeared after the play’s first three scenes. It’s proof that it’s not a particularly effective concept: it doesn’t map well onto the language the characters actually use about the political situation, and thus becomes difficult to sustain (unless you slap some novelty wigs on various characters, I guess). Fortunately, this meant that my distaste for the enforced parallel didn’t ruin the show for me, and I was able to set that soon-irrelevant imagery aside and enjoy what was actually happening.

Trumpius Caesar

So people are really mad about the Shakespeare in the Park Julius Caesar that dresses Caesar up as Trump. And lefty theatre people are sort of gleeful at the rightwing anger, because look! Theatre causes controversy! We’re important!

But one thing that’s jumped out at me in the furor is the implication– suggested by my Twitter timeline’s, “It’s Shakespeare, stupid,” response to a Fox news article attacking the “New York City play” in terms that made it seem like they thought it was a new anti-Trump play– is that there is inherent Trumpiness in Shakespeare’s play. That Oskar Eustis didn’t add anything except an orange wig and some pussyhats to what was already there.

But as always, Shakespeare is way slipperier and more equivocal than directors seem to expect, and the supposedly self-evident commentary on dictatorship that Julius Caesar offers is no exception. Today I keep thinking about a production I saw several years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where the Vilma Silva played Caesar. Suddenly, the conspirators’ accusations of tyranny took on a more suspicious cast. Why were they so threatened by her? Should we believe their accusations of actions we never get to see? Why is Cassius so obsessed with her physical weakness, with feeling degraded by being subordinate to her?

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival didn’t change the text either– Caesar still had a distinctly self-aggrandizing air, still less-than-secretly craved a crown. Was still a war hero, and beloved by the people. There was good and bad. But her gender added an additional wrinkle, forced a reexamination of the conspirators’ virulent hatred. That wrinkle went some way towards standing in for an Elizabethan audience’s acceptance of the self-evident good of monarchy, a counterbalance to the conspirators’ language about tyranny and freedom that tends to ring completely convincingly to contemporary audiences.

I can’t see the Public’s production, so it’s very possible that they offer much more complication than the reviews and responses have suggested so far. But it seems to me that they have unbalanced the play’s morality by depicting Caesar as Trump– especially given their New York City (read: probably liberal) audiences, who are coming in with a certain set of biases (to say the least). Caesar is not just a cardboard tyrant, and Shakespeare’s central question is more complicated than just “is assassination of an objectively horrible leader right or wrong.” I don’t think it would have been any better to put Caesar in a pantsuit and make Calpurnia her white-haired southern husband, but it might have left more room for the text’s uncertainty about Caesar’s dangerousness.

In short, while Oskar Eustis may not have added anything to turn Caesar into Trump, it’s reductive to suggest that he was just tapping into was was already obvious and explicit in Shakespeare’s words.

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 did it, and thought they had 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.


Top Plays of 2014

I’m positive that there are things I’m missing from early in the year, because I only have notes through April with me now. But, in chronological order, here are my top ten plays from 2014. It was harder to narrow down than I thought it would be, and so when it was a close call I went with the ones that have stuck with me, and that I’ve kept thinking about long after I saw them. It’s been a pretty remarkable year for shows like that. 

1. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812: This is probably cheating, since I saw it for the first time shortly after moving to NYC in 2012. I absolutely adored it then, and I absolutely adored it when I saw it again after its move from Ars Nova to a bigger midtown location. It’s a rock opera, written by Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin, adapted from a small slice of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Young, naive Natasha Rostova travels to Moscow to await the return of her betrothed, Andrey, from the wars, but finds herself enchanted by the beautiful and not wholly trustworthy Anatole. Her story eventually intertwines with that of Pierre, Andrey’s best friend, unhappily married to Anatole’s sister. Dave Malloy originated the role of Pierre (though he was no longer playing it by the time I saw it in 2014) and Philippa Soo, playing Natasha, is staggeringly talented and a name to watch. 

The music is beautiful, the performances were spot-on, the staging was inventive and made sitting through a three-hour rock opera adaptation of a Russian novel a positive delight. Oh, also, the actor playing Dolokhov gave us free wine because we happened to be sitting with someone he knew, so… all around, everything you want from an evening of theatre. 

(seriously, if anyone reading this doesn’t know this show, download it at once, it’s truly great) 

2. Twelfth Night: Okay, this one is probably also cheating, because I also saw this in both 2013 and 2014. But it’s part of the reason I’m here in London now, so that’s probably important. And this production completely transformed the way I look at Twelfth Night, which I freely admit I never much liked before, and now consider one of my favorites. This production allowed me to rediscover the joy in the play, which a lifetime of watching knock-offs of the Trevor Nunn film version had almost completely sapped away. It was my first all-male production, and I found the experiment fascinating– and also that it justified my impulse that there is more than just nerdy dramaturgical interest to be gained from understanding early modern playhouse practice as deeply as possible… which in turn helped me justify the mostly completely batty decision to come to London. 

3. Cripple of Inishmaan: This play taught me that I might possibly like two things I thought I didn’t: Daniel Radcliffe’s acting, and Martin McDonagh’s writing. Blasphemy, I know– but the only thing I ever read of his was The Pillowman, and then I was too traumatized to read more. But Inishmaan was an utter delight, and I will be the first to acknowledge that I seriously misjudged Daniel Radcliffe’s talents– and more importantly, I think, his humbleness and his obvious dedication to working hard at the job of acting, not just coasting along as a movie star, as he obviously could. 

4. Much Ado About Nothing: I was terribly excited for Shakespeare in the Park’s Much Ado About Nothing, and the show far exceeded my high expectations– mostly by completely transforming those expectations. Like Twelfth Night, this production completely changed my understanding of the essential dynamics of the play. Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater’s Beatrice and Benedick were unlike any I’ve seen in the best possible way: rather than being obviously the two smartest, coolest people in the room– so that the question of their getting together only seems to be an eye-rolling matter of when– they portrayed the quarrelsome lovers as proud and prickly, lashing out when you sense they’d rather reach out, if only they weren’t too afraid of being mocked. This is not to suggest that the pair were soaked in maudlin self-loathing, but rather that their vast intelligence and genuine high spirits were also undergirded with a strong instinct for self-preservation. Most interestingly, this had the effect of raising actual questions about their eventual union. Would they actually manage to overcome their quips and fear to get together? Their public denials in the last scene read to me, for the first time ever, not just as a silly final layover before the inevitable happy ending, but a moment in which there seemed to be a real chance that they would choose pride and safety over happiness at last. 

5. Two Gentlemen of Verona: My wish for 2015 is that more people start producing all-female Shakespeare that a) isn’t The Taming of the Shrew and b) doesn’t feel like it needs to hedge its bets with explanations, framing devices, and commentary. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Two Gentlemen of Verona was a perfect example of the power that simply presenting a play and letting women embody it can have. The gender decision spoke for itself: director Sarah Rasmussen wisely recognized that no more adornment was required.  

6. Into the Woods: I’d never actually seen a live Into the Woods before this production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s a hard play for many musical theatre fans to see, I think, because the filmed Broadway version casts such a long shadow. But Amanda Denhert’s production straddled the perfect line between staking an interpretive claim and sucking the magic out of the show by privileging the director’s vision above the strength of the play itself. It was, in other words, sufficiently different from the original version to shake off the specters of Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, and Chip Zien, but did not feel the need to achieve this by, say, setting it in modern-day New York City.  

7. Julius Caesar: Yet another production that helped me see a play I thought I knew very well in an entirely new light. As I wrote, the trouble with Julius Caesar often seems to be that all the good bits– or at least all the famous bits– happen in acts 1-3. But Tom McKay’s beautiful, soulful Brutus so fully inhabited the heart of the play, it became not just a story of politics and assassination, but a character study that had to be followed to the bitter end. 

8. The James Plays (plus part 3): I can’t stop thinking about these plays. Weeks after seeing them for the second time, I had to go buy the script because I couldn’t stop trying to remember lines, scenes, and moments. The last time I can remember seeing a play and it having that kind of effect, the play was by Shakespeare. The opening scene of James I might be one of the best-written first scenes I’ve read, full stop. I’ve linked them anyway, but my reviews are so far from encompassing what I’ve come to think and feel about these plays, because I wrote the reviews right after seeing them, and it turns out these plays take much more time than that to fully unfold. 

9. Charles III: When I first read about Charles III last spring I was desperate to see it, and I’m so glad that I not only got the chance, but it was exactly as awesome as I thought it would be. I was worried that I wouldn’t understand the politics of it, but Mike Bartlett’s drama is much more human than that. It’s a classic Shakespearean historical tragedy, and its setting in the near future rather than the past only serves, somehow, to reinforce this feeling. As the man said, what’s past is prologue. 

10. The Knight of the Burning Pestle : How often do you feel pure, joyful delight in the theatre? Not often enough. But what’s so remarkable about Burning Pestle is that it achieves this joy without just being a confection of a play. It’s terribly silly, but it’s not shallow. George and Nell ground the play, radiating warmth and welcome. If more plays reminded people that there’s no right way to go to the theatre, maybe more people would come. 

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.