Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse

PREPARATIONJulius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse 

I enjoyed reading this play in the No Fear edition: although the translation was invaluable, as usual, long passages were easy to understand in the original text.  From Suetonius I’d already learnt something of Julius Caesar’s backstory: his rise to prominence through military exploits, and his controversial terms as consul in Rome and governor in Gaul.  His skills as an orator, advocate and  writer clearly made him a formidable political operator and explained why other leading Romans feared his ambition.  In the Civil War he’d defeated Pompey and others who favoured collective senatorial rule. 

My interest in the play was enhanced by knowing that I’d be seeing it performed by an all female cast, because the major theme does seem especially ‘male’.  This concerns how far men playing their roles in the public sphere trust others to exercise authority over them , and how they maintain their self-respect when someone has the power to command them.  And how friendship and personal loyalty are affected by the social roles men are required to hold.  There are the questions too about how one person comes to exercise authority: is this the result of merit and destiny, or desire to be top dog ?

Among the conspirators Cassius has observed Caesar’s human frailty. Brutus has a sense of noblesse oblige due to his lineage: others tend to defer to his judgment, for example in allowing Anthony and Cicero to survive Caesar.  Although Anthony suggests that all the conspirators  apart from Brutus are motivated by envy, they were all entitled to take the view that Rome was better governed by collective leadership.  Anthony, by contrast has decided to ride on Caesar’s coat-tails, as evidenced by the charade of offering him a crown before an audience of Plebeians.

Caesar’s attitude to all this is ambiguous or ambivalent: having decided to stay away from the senate house at Calpurnia’s request he’s easily persuaded by Decius Brutus’ lie that the senate has decided to crown him.  Once there he takes the first opportunity to impose his will by insisting on the continuing exile of Publius Cimber, a crucial moment which might have hardened the determination of the conspirators, although the assassination was planned anyway.  Even when his ‘peers’ humiliate themselves by pleading Caesar won’t be swayed in his judgement.

I was deeply impressed by Shakespeare’s understanding of these subtleties in relationships between men: he goes to the heart of anxieties about people having authority / power over us.  What experiences taught him about these thought processes ?  Or has he deduced them ?   He maintains a careful neutrality on the rights and wrongs of the assassination, showing ‘moral weakness’ and errors of judgement in all the main characters.  Anthony’s transparent manipulation of the Plebeians is followed by hypocrisy in minimising Caesar’s legacy to them.  Brutus is critical of Cassius for ‘selling honours’ but would have accepted some of the ill-gotten gold in order to pay his soldiers.

I sensed the ground being prepared for Anthony and Cleopatra which Shakespeare was perhaps writing about the same time.  Cassius dismisses Anthony as ‘a masker and a reveller’ while Anthony is contemptuous of Lepidus, the third member of the triumvirate.  Octavius asserts himself over the older Anthony and they both benefit from Brutus’ misjudgements, first in going to meet them at Philippi then in launching a premature attack which leads to disaster. 

There were moments when I worried that the play might suffer something of the ‘Macbeth problem’, with supernatural events confusing human motivation.  Much is made of omens, especially by Calpurnia but these spectacular events seem to have been reported to rather than seen by the characters.  Perhaps Shakespeare was wanting to add authenticity to his portrayal of Rome, where such things had, apparently been taken seriously, without interfering with ‘modern rationality’ ?  The undelivered letter from Artemidorus is a mystery: how would he have known the names of the conspirators ?

In Julius Caesar the women are ‘only’ wives and supplicants, Portia wanting to be privy to Brutus’ thoughts and Calpurnia failing to influence Caesar.  But there’s no reason to believe they don’t exercise power in the domestic sphere, while their men compete in the social world.  I’m looking forward to seeing how an all female cast will portray these male themes of authority and relationships, and how far my suspension of disbelief will be affected by their sex.  If we allow ourselves to believe in scenes of battle on stage, and Elizabethans could cope with men playing  women, the challenge shouldn’t be insuperable.

I glanced at some negative reviews in The Telegraph and read an interview with director Phyllida Lloyd (Telegraph, 6.12.12) where she argues that the Royal Shakespeare Company should employ equal numbers of male and female actors, even if it means more women playing men.  While I’m not naturally sympathetic to this sort of special pleading I’m prepared to see if this production of Julius Caesar can make the case for such innovation.  After all, we seem to be coming to terms with colour-blind casting, so why not gender-blind too ?

PERFORMANCE (14th January 2013)

Arriving for my first experience of the Donmar Warehouse I was taken aback on two counts.  First it seemed an exceptionally Spartan venue, with only plastic chairs for seating but I guessed, correctly, that this was in keeping with the idea that this performance of Julius Caesar was taking place in a women’s prison.  My initial concern about having a restricted view from the side proved unjustified, although I’d aim to be central on another visit. 

Secondly, the programme note (by Robert Harris) gave a much more negative view of Caesar as a tyrant than seemed justified by the evidence of Suetonius, with parallels drawn with Hitler and the Stauffenburg bomb plot.  However, while Shakespeare’s text is more moderate, Frances Barber as Caesar used his aside to Antony about Cassius as a direct and brutal confrontation with the ‘lean and hungry’ man he fears (I:2:200 on).  Was this alteration of Shakespeare’s intention justified ?  Certainly the hard edge to Caesar’s character is made explicit in relation to Publius Cimber’s exile.

Whether justified by the text, the device worked well, giving credibility to Barber’s other role as the prison’s ‘hard woman’.  Equally effective was the use of loud rock music to suggest battle scenes and the marching in and out of prisoners by warders.  Indeed, I was fully absorbed from the outset and quickly abandoned any concern that these were women playing roles normally taken by men.  Harriet Walter was totally convincing as Brutus and the only note that jarred was the young woman playing the soothsayer and Artemidorus.  I didn’t understand why she carried a doll and appeared naked towards the end of the play.

Good use was made of Portia’s plea that her husband should share with her his thoughts about the public life in which he was involved.  This could be taken as highlighting women’s exclusion from that sphere and the lack of partnership in some marriages.  On the other hand the text justifies the possibility that Brutus was trying to protect his wife from being implicated in the conspiracy.

I’ve no doubt that Phyllida Lloyd and the cast have proved the case that women should have the opportunity, through imaginative productions like this, to speak lines of Shakespeare which are normally denied  them.  There must be many more opportunities for gender blind casting.  Although I’m  inclined to draw the line at, say, a swap between Macbeth and his wife, I would certainly go to see an attempt at that.  What I learnt from this experience is that what matters are Shakespeare’s insights into our thoughts and interactions: if the actors speak their lines well, our imaginations can do the rest.

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About Trevor Harvey

Post-graduate student of art, literature, politics and government
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