Shakespeare ZA is delighted to welcome back guest blogger Christiaan Naudé, a Master of Arts English literature student and assistant English lecturer at the University of Pretoria, who reviews National Theatre Live's production of Julius Caesar.
Some faces among the audience that crowded around the promenade expressed their incredulity when a punk-rock rendition of Katy Perry opened the Bridge Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. From the outset, its historical point of contact is clear: this no-intermission performance begins with a tribute-concert for Caesar, replete with all the accoutrements of the slick, modern politician: branded caps and jackets, flags, and a banner displaying the zesty slogan, ‘Do this!’. Nicholas Hytner’s bold modernisation goes on to take full advantage of the Bridge Theatre’s modularity, and brings back a hint of danger to theatre-going, with the stage-side audience within a hair’s breadth of roving gangs of louts, street brawls and the pyrotechnics of war, and needing to steer clear of rising and falling platforms, actors and props shuttling to and fro. So dynamic is the set-design (in one instance, a cart intended to clear the stage of Brutus’ couch cushions immediately converts itself into a dustbin fire) that one is reluctant to return to the old proscenium arch.
David Calder plays his red cap- and leather jacket-sporting Caesar with the correct balance of endearing frailty and wrath, and one is (initially) helplessly in accord with the adulation that he receives from the rest of Rome’s populace. A female cast takes on the central roles of Cassius and Casca with particularly resonant results, for example, when Caesar suspiciously eyes Cassius and announces that ‘she thinks too much: such women are dangerous’. (The svelte Calpurnia, played by Wendy Kweh and evidently Caesar’s junior by over 20 years, is also a sly touch.) Michelle Fairley’s Cassius remains consistently steely, while Adjoah Andoh’s Casca delivers her lines with the perfect degree of saucy rudeness to make her performance a highlight. It must be noted that Lephia Darko makes good use of her brief time on stage as an androgynous Portia, whose intense character is such that the announcement of her death later in the play arouses the appropriate pathos.
Ben Whishaw’s Brutus is an interesting case. Framed as a high-strung public intellectual who is an incongruent mix of Ché Guevara and Noam Chomsky (indeed, a fan holds up ‘On Liberty by Marcus Brutus’ for the author to sign), he frets and struts upon the stage, hardly ever appearing able to assuage his general anxiety. And it is this aspect of his character that remains untempered by a clear impetus or resolve for committing treason that might have been expressed before Caesar’s assassination, making his trajectory toward murderer and combatant appear somewhat perplexing. David Morrissey, on the other hand, is almost too expert in his rendition of Mark Antony as an apparently gormless and anodyne politician who reveals deep reserves of cunning. It is really the antagonism between these two performances that, toward the end of the play, creates the disturbing sense that neither side can safely be privileged; the realisation dawns that each character’s dedication to principle or assertions of loyalty are contaminated – qualified – by treachery.
What is impressive about Hytner’s Julius Caesar is how it maintains the tension of the political thriller by weaving the more incidental scenes – the ferment on the streets of Rome, and, later, the outbreak of urban warfare – into the development of the narrative via the Bridge’s protean stage. Even Cassius’ speech following Caesar’s murder – ‘How many ages hence | Shall this our lofty scene be acted over | In states unborn and accents yet unknown!’ – a speech particularly susceptible to turgidity, achieves its appropriately uncanny effect. But, while relishing in Shakespeare’s elevated diction – expressed in this production with much comprehension and lucidity – one gets the creeping sense that, because of this elevation, because of the introspection and insight evinced by Shakespeare’s personages, and despite its contemporary setting here, this play is far-removed from the political banalities of our time (and perhaps all times): that is, the naked prejudice of intensity politics and the detached, enervating reportage of dashed Levantine cities (troublingly suggested by the latter scenes of the production). One comes to recognise that this play is what it is, a representation of political tragedy, a different way of thinking our modernity, a way of making some sense out of the vacuity of ploys for economic or political predominance, perhaps even a way of attaining some beauty. This text does not redeem our modernity (it is folly to expect this), but there is something to be said for the enthusiasm with which it has been staged and received.