In 1601, just before the Earl of Essex’s uprising, a specially commissioned performance of Richard II was played for the would-be usurpers. Shakespeare’s words, no doubt already politically sensitive when he penned them, took on a heightened meaning in the tenser political climate. Some 400 years later, it is another of his plays—Julius Caesar—that resonates with unintended political reverberations. In Rome’s struggle of empire, preoccupation with violence, and groundswell of political activism, Shakespeare’s vision possesses eerie resemblances to America’s own fractured political wrangling. Art and life seem too close in imitation with one another.
In Lucy Bailey’s production of Julius Caesar for the RSC—continuing the company’s winter residence at the Roundhouse Theatre in London—disquieting undertones of modern political life seep through a dramatic and blood-filled staging of Shakespeare’s thriller. Nothing in the program nor the production explicitly calls attention to the play’s parallels to modern political events or discourse, but such is the nature of the “whirligig of time” that such parallels become hard to ignore. Casca, played to deeply disturbing effect by Oliver Ryan, brandishes a dagger while exclaiming: “So every bondman in his own hand bears / The power to cancel his captivity”—which could just as easily be a slogan associated with the National Rifle Association. Ryan portrays Casca as mentally disturbed and bloodlusty. Cassius (John Mackay) manipulates Casca’s penchant for overblown ideological railing to implant the idea of Caesar’s assassination (Inception, but in the span of a few speeches). Parallels with current partisan rhetoric are all too easy to find.
Violence and blood pervade this Julius Caesar, and Bailey certainly knows how to grab attention. The production opens with an intense fight to the death between Remus (Joseph Arkley) and Romulus (Tunji Kasim), the mythical founder(s) of Rome—an extra-textual device that prepares for the violence to come. The second half of the show opens with even grislier images. Mark Antony (Darrell D’Silva), apparently fresh from battle, enters carrying a human head. He sits on a throne, reading a list of names of potential executees. A prisoner enters, dragged across the diagonal length of the stage, screaming before vomiting blood. Toward the end of the scene, in a bit of dark humor Antony tosses the head to Octavius (Arkley) on the line: “we must straight make head.”
William Dudley’s design focuses on several shifting slats at the rear of the stage, set at diagonals onto which are projected at appropriate moments images of jeering crowds. A wide space above the slats also holds projection, varying among images of Caesar’s statue, burning buildings, or ominous undergrowth. The production exhibits a tension between the flat projections and the physical combat. Sarah Dowling’s movement direction and Philip D’Orléans’s fight sequences are vibrant and adrenaline-packed. During the crowd scenes, the company members appear alongside the projection, a somewhat awkward juxtaposition. But Django Bates’s brassy music creates an even further level of uncomfortability and aural violence.
The company is put to good work. D’Silva, the most consistently engaging of the lead actors, makes a perfect gem out of Antony—understatedly crass and brutish at first, before turning into a gifted manipulator. He escapes the horror of ponderously delivering “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” by having to shout the line since the crowd noises, fresh from Brutus’s speech, are so uproarious: this is a plea for attention. Sam Troughton’s Brutus is painfully uptight; he seems to be holding his very atoms together through a force of will. His angular gestures relax after he bathes his hands in Caesar’s blood, and he delivers the funeral oration with clinical precision—a gripping performance. Greg Hicks’s characterization of Caesar is harder to understand: he presents Caesar as weak, especially in his physical movement, which seems to spring from his hands or arms instead of having commanding weight and presence. With a lack of gravitas, one wonders how this Caesar ever managed to conquer huge swathes of empire. Yet, he handles the assassination well, including a protracted death, and his return as Caesar’s ghost to deliver Brutus’s death blow (a clever directorial touch) is especially eerie.
Julius Caesar is a male-dominated play. Hannah Young’s self-harming Portia is one of the few voices of pity and restraint. Testosterone, sweat, dirt, and blood are generously applied. The language of political ideology as an incitement to and justification of violence comes uncomfortably close to our modern era. In Brutus’s explanation of Caesar’s assassination, he says, “If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I lov’d Caesar less, but that I lov’d Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all freemen?” The state motto “Live Free or Die" here is followed to a twisted conclusion, and the conspirators’ proclamation, “Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!” follows, as staged by Bailey, a gruesome and bloody murder. And D’Silva’s brilliant working of Antony’s funeral oration to turn the crowd from foe to friend could easily be today’s commentators making use of social networking to inflame the blogosphere. Though Shakespeare has long been said to reflect the human condition, his portrayal of violence, brutality, and bloodshed, combined with a preoccupation with the power of language and rhetoric, strikes too close to home.