Julius Caesar – July 2014

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Dominic Dromgoole

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Tuesday 8th July 2014

This was a much better experience than our previous visit (Titus Andronicus). We could hear the dialogue as well as seeing more of the action, and although there were a few casualties who needed to be helped out of the theatre, we weren’t distracted so much by them this time around. Mind you, they were still building the set when we arrived at our seats; two workmen were busy setting up the fake façade of a building underneath the balcony, which at least gave the audience something to watch while we waited for the play to begin.

The stage had a pointy extension this time, a triangular shape which had steps up to the stage on each of the open sides. There were also steps up on each side of the full stage. No black swaddling today; instead they had a projecting central balcony above with panels in front of the lower central opening. Arrangements of branches and foliage were suspended under the roof just inside each of the main pillars. The décor was decidedly Elizabethan, and matched the costumes, which were Elizabethan with a few Roman touches – just how the original Elizabethans liked it, apparently. Without the Titus awnings, there was more light everywhere despite the grey skies.

As the stewards helped a lady behind us who hadn’t realised the rear seats were high ones, we watched the workmen putting the finishing touches to the façade on stage, while three closed wagons were wheeled into the pit, basically large boxes on wheels. Some of the rabble (I refer to the actors here, rather than the audience) tried to get the crowd clapping and cheering for Caesar, and used chants of “Lupercal, Lupercal” in a football-supporter kind of way. The tribunes broke in on all of this – mildly effective.

During the conversation with the plebeians, I was aware that the cobbler answered the tribunes directly – he told them he was a cobbler – but they kept asking him what his profession was – why? It was nicely played, though, and got the audience laughing almost immediately. When Marullus asked “Knew you not Pompey?” someone answered “Yes”, which got another laugh.

The workmen had finished setting up the pillars now, and sat on the plinths to listen to the tribunes. One tribune, in his rage, thumped a phony pillar and made it move; this made us laugh, and then the workmen righted the pillar and left the stage – all that work just for a relatively cheap joke?

When the tribunes left the stage, a dead deer was dropped down from above to have its throat cut. The blood was collected in a basin, and some scantily clad men were (presumably) dabbed with some of the blood – this was hidden from my view. Caesar and his party came through the pit, protected by a couple of ropes and some security guards (i.e. soldiers). Caesar worked the crowd well, going outside of the ropes to shake people’s hands, and he gave one man, who was perched on top of the middle wagon, a bag of money. This led to cheering from the rabble.

When the Roman nobles were assembled on the stage, the three runners knelt to one side in front of them. They were carrying fly whisks – perhaps because the blood they’d been daubed with would attract flies? – and Caesar spoke to Mark Antony before they set off on a brisk jog round the pit area to the sound of horns and drums. Calpurnia stood forward of the others on the stage, and as the runners came up and across it, Mark Antony touched her – job done. Immediately after the race, the soothsayer called out to Caesar from the far side of the pit. Caesar wasn’t impressed with his warning however, and left the stage through the façade to see the games within. Brutus and Cassius remained outside, with Brutus hovering at the front of the stage.

Cassius was very deft in his handling of Brutus, and came across as remarkably honest. His lines “Were I a common laughter…”, asserting his integrity by expounding the negative things he wasn’t known for, worked very well, and I for one would have believed him quite happily. His long speeches seemed to be based more on a desire for the Republic of Rome to be governed by the best men, not just by one man, especially when that one was not the best available (in his view).

There were loud cheers and shouting from backstage as was needed during their conversation, and then Caesar came out looking hesitant and unhappy. He drew Mark Antony to the front of the stage to have a few quiet words with him, and facing the other way he spoke too softly for us to hear any of that dialogue. We have a lot of respect for George Irving as an actor (not least for the leading male role in a magnificent adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman) but today he rather let the side down by not being strong enough in his delivery. A good many of Caesar’s lines were lost throughout the performance, but at least we know the play well enough and could get by. Mark Antony could hear Caesar’s words, though; he smiled at Brutus and Cassius, but we couldn’t be sure if they were also able to hear what Caesar was saying.

Casca was a bit camp, very acerbic and funny; he did some kind of hand gesture at one point which raised a laugh. While he informed Brutus and Cassius about events off stage, the workmen went about removing the pillars they’d put up earlier. This was a little awkward for me – apart from being a distraction, it was one of those conversations which is suggestive of privacy. Cassius’ final lines at the end of the scene made his intentions clear, and then a mini-riot broke out on stage. There were loud noises, people rushing about and one poor chap was mugged quite badly and left lying on the stage near one of the pillars. Eventually I realised that the rumbling noises were meant to be thunder and that we were being invited to believe that a storm was lashing us with wind and rain – not the best evocation I’ve ever experienced, although thankfully the real weather didn’t decide to contribute at this point.

Casca sat at the front of the stage for most of this bit, and I found it about as dull as usual. All “these prodigies” do nothing for me, although the lines were well delivered, but at least we got the information that Caesar was off to the Capitol the next day. I felt that this scene followed too abruptly from the previous one, as if there were something else missing from the play, but the later parts do show us Cassius involving someone else in the plot.

The ‘thunder’ rolled constantly until Cassius took out his dagger on “I know where I will wear this dagger then”, giving us a little breathing space before it started up again, though a little quieter. Brutus came on before Cassius and Casca had finished their scene – a frequent technique at the Globe – and the baskets of foliage I spotted earlier were lowered at this point to indicate Brutus’ orchard. The mugged man got up and left – a remarkable recovery – and I wondered if he would be the one who warns Caesar; after all, he had just overheard the details of the plot against him.

Brutus’ soliloquy gave us a clear picture of his mental state; he seemed to be convincing himself of the need to kill Caesar before he became too powerful. When the other conspirators arrived, Brutus stood a little way off from them, not shaking their hands or greeting them more warmly than his words showed. Brutus and Cassius moved back to the entranceway to have their quiet conference, leaving the rest of the group to have their debate on compass directions. After his chat with Cassius, Brutus took each conspirator by the hand; Lucius was sitting on one of the plinths having a little snooze while all of this was going on.

Decius Brutus sat on a bench (a couple had been brought out to dress the orchard set) and while he asked if anyone else was to die I saw that he was peeling an orange; an odd thing to do, but perhaps he was hungry. I couldn’t see much of Cassius’ reaction when Brutus over-rode the idea of killing Mark Antony as well, but they were all friends when the rest of the conspirators left Brutus alone. Or nearly alone; Portia was soon on stage, asking her husband what was wrong. Her thigh wound was hidden by the pillar, but must have been a nasty gash judging by the audience’s response.

A trombone player appeared on the balcony to herald Caesar, who had again arrived on stage just before Brutus and Caius Ligarius left. Caesar was a bit too quiet still, and I also missed a lot of Calpurnia’s lines. I was aware of the similarity between the two scenes – a wife persuading her husband to take her seriously – but unlike Portia, Calpurnia was only temporarily successful. Decius Brutus soon arrived and had Caesar salivating at the prospect of a crown. Antony was looking much the worse for wear when he turned up amongst the rest, and held up his fists triumphantly when Caesar praised him – laughter.

Calpurnia was looking at Mark Antony (I think) as her husband left with the other senators. Artemidorus stood on the front steps and read out a list of the conspirators: there was no connection I could see with the man who had been mugged. Calpurnia stayed put all during that little scene, and then there was a rush of servants to clear the stage. When it was over, we were left with Portia, clearly in mental and emotional turmoil, running about the stage while Calpurnia glided gracefully off it – overlapping wives, each concerned about their husband’s fate. The comic interlude with Lucius worked well and the soothsayer passed through just fine, leaving a general impression of Portia’s nerviness and the level of risk which Brutus and the others were taking.

Again Caesar processed onto the stage between ropes, only this time he didn’t stop to work the crowd. Artemidorus intercepted Caesar at the very front of the stage, but was brushed aside as others crowded in to distract Caesar. With so many senators on stage, I found it hard to keep track of the comings and goings in the early part of this scene. I was aware that this Caesar was using a lot of spin in his speeches, claiming to be as “constant as the northern star” when he’d just changed his mind (twice!) about going to the Senate that morning; this was either a politically motivated massaging of the truth or a total lack of self-awareness.

The stabbing got under way with Casca moving round behind Caesar and sticking it to him. There followed a rather frenzied bout of knife-wielding, but although there was a lot of blood on Caesar’s tunic, the stage was remarkably clean for once. That changed later, but for now there was some singing (from a woman on the balcony?) as Caesar stumbled around for a bit and then fell to the ground on the front section of the stage. There was a pause before Cinna’s “Liberty!”, and as the assassins planned their next move, I spotted the blood seeping up from below the stage to form a pool near to Caesar’s knee – he had missed the ideal death spot by a couple of feet. This pool allowed the conspirators to “bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood”, but before they could go out to placate the people, Mark Antony’s servant arrived and an audience member collapsed behind one of the wagons in the pit – more distractions.

Antony himself was remarkably calm about the whole affair, although he did show his emotions more strongly once the conspirators had left him alone with the body. Before that he shook their hands, criss-crossing the stage to do it, while Cassius and Brutus had their little huddle right at the front – no problem hearing the conversation this time.

Octavius’ servant helped Mark Antony remove Caesar’s body from the stage, and then the rabble invaded the pit, clearly upset and wanting to know what had happened. A bit of wooden fencing was brought on to serve as “the pulpit”, and although it took Brutus a little while to quieten the crowd, his rhetoric began to persuade them that the assassination was a jolly good thing. They gave lots of responses during his speech, except when Brutus waited after “I pause for a reply”; this was an excellent example of how well a space like the Globe can do these crowd scenes.

When Mark Antony came to the pulpit the crowd was noisy again. Caesar’s coffin was laid on the front triangle, and Mark Antony had to work hard to get his “friends, Romans, countrymen” to listen. In fact, I felt this was a bit weak, with the rabble largely shutting up by themselves. It wasn’t long before Antony was into his stride, however, and he soon had them eating out of his hands. One long pause on “sure…he is an honourable man” conveyed his meaning precisely without overtly criticising Brutus, and when Antony “begins again to speak”, one of the rabble who was talking was shushed by the others.

I was very aware of the threat from this mob, and the only problem was that they peaked too soon. When Antony called them back for the reading of the will, it seemed to calm them down compared to their previous mood, but mind you, they were still an ugly lot whom you would not wish to meet on a dark night in Rome or anywhere else: Cinna the poet, take note. (And just why did Will structure this speech in this way in the first place? The man was a genius so he had his reasons, but I’m certainly not up to unravelling them.)

They took the interval here, and the stage crew spent it mopping up the blood and getting rid of the remaining items from the pre-show building stint. The balcony was left open, with no balustrade. When the unlucky Cinna (the poet) came on stage, it took a while for the audience to quieten down, but then he hid behind a pillar when he heard the rabble coming. He was hiding behind the one on our side, and doing it very effectively, so I’m not sure how on earth Katy Stephens (as a Roman citizen) spotted him. Perhaps he had a foot sticking out, or maybe she has good hearing, but in any case she stopped the rest of the group and walked round to look at the poor man. He had his eyes shut and opened them when she spoke, coming out from behind the pillar as the others asked him questions. He didn’t do very well in his interrogation, and they were soon beating him mercilessly – it reminded me of the paedophile nonsense several years ago where paediatricians and the like were being targeted by ignorant and hostile crowds. This certainly made the dangers of an unstable Rome very clear.

Three chairs were brought on for Lepidus, Antony and Octavius just as the mob were finishing off the wrong Cinna. They may have removed his balls as well – not sure about that point. Mark Antony’s chair was behind a pillar, as was Lepidus’, but at least Antony prowled around the stage a bit so I could see some of his expressions. Octavius faced away from me so he was more of a blank, but even so his ruthless efficiency came across loud and clear.

The scene between Brutus and Cassius was quite good, but I missed the emotional content from this distance. Cassius arrived with an escort of soldiers and when they stopped at the top of the steps he carried on through them to the stage. Cassius was all for a blazing row then and there, but Brutus sensibly advised a strategic withdrawal to his tent. They left the stage and the soldiers put up a ‘tent’, though I’ve forgotten now how they represented it. (There were soldiers and poles, but was that the Titus or the Julius…? How quickly we forget.)

The two men had a strong argument, and I was more aware of Brutus’ emotions afterwards, when he informed Cassius of Portia’s death. Cassius’ “How scaped I killing when I crossed you so?” said it all, and made it clear that these men had been close. This was after the poet interrupted them, an old man who danced around a bit and caused some laughter, and then they held their council of war with the other commanders. Again Brutus squashed Cassius’ better advice, and again I couldn’t make out Cassius’ reaction – was he unhappy or did he go along with Brutus’ reasoning?

After the other commanders left, Lucius brought on a tray with the wine and a candle and later a small harp to play some music. He fell asleep while playing it – that boy could sleep for Rome – and there were also two soldiers sleeping with their backs against the far pillar. When Caesar’s ghost appeared, Brutus didn’t see him straightaway; the ghost was wearing the bloody robe and walked behind Brutus, passing his hand over Brutus’ head. He also rubbed his hands over Brutus for a few moments before leaving.

After Brutus woke everyone else up, the stage was cleared for the arrival of the troops under Octavius and Antony. Some inserted lines – “By the left”, “Yes, thank you, Antony” – gave us a laugh before the fighting and death got underway. Octavius was very determined, and like an experienced politician picked his battles well, avoiding a conflict with Antony when there was a more immediate job to do. Antony appeared less capable here, less like the successful general he’s supposed to be at the start of the later Antony And Cleopatra.

The opposing groups marched around the stage for a bit until they squared up to hurl insults at one another. Octavius stalked off stage well before Mark Antony, and then seven of the soldiers formed a testudo with three at the front, two behind with shields raised above the formation and one soldier at each side protecting the flanks. They did a little dance, moving around the stage and changing formation, eventually breaking apart and doing some individual fighting moves. They paused during a few lines of dialogue, after which they ran off the stage; there were musicians on the balcony accompanying all of this activity with martial drumming.

When the drummers had left, Pindarus used the balcony to check out the events on a distant hill, where Titinius had been sent to ascertain the allegiance of some troops. There were sounds of cheering outside the auditorium, which Pindarus reported to Cassius, and again there were women on the balcony singing as Cassius died. Titinius was wearing a wreath when he came back and found the dead body, and killed himself after his companion left the stage to tell Brutus the news – no singing for him.

The drummers came back again and there were more dancing soldiers to cover the dead bodies getting up and leaving the stage – there are some things we see better from our vantage point in the Gentlemen’s rooms. After a bit more fighting, where we could only hear the occasional line of dialogue, the fake Brutus was captured, and then the real Brutus, with four companions, entered for his final scene. The man who held the sword which Brutus ran onto was Caesar – a nice touch – and this time the singing women were hidden somewhere; I could hear the song but couldn’t tell where they were.

When Antony was speechifying over Brutus’ dead body, I couldn’t help thinking he was fond of exaggerating; the “noblest Roman of them all”? Really? Octavius spoke the final lines from the front of the triangle and then the three women came on stage to help Brutus up. When I saw them doing this, I wondered if they were meant to represent the Fates. The rest of the cast straggled on and they all lined up, raising their right arms before going into the final fighting dance accompanied by drumming and applause.

I found this last section dragged a bit; if I haven’t made an emotional connection to the characters early on, these battle and suicide sections don’t move me at all. Even so it was a brisk and intelligent production with a very clear storyline, and it’s helped to restore my faith in the Globe as a venue.

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

3 comments on “Julius Caesar – July 2014

  1. Peter Serres says:

    To save you the trouble of reading the whole of OVID – Fasti, Book II, Feb 15th: The Lupercalia – shall we leave it at “What will unruly love not dare?” And there’s a rooster involved, or something. Please accept the proposition that Jolly Dom was trying to get you all in a Lupercalian mood and that the important thing for the play, if possble, is to get the childless Calpurnia “broody”. If the budget didn’t stretch to an Antonine Hunk, at least the thought was there. OK?

    Right, now I’m off to the Speshul Pedants’ Box ( where I sit, mostly alone, in my intellecual glory).

  2. Peter Serres says:

    Fly Whisks? No – just a little mild flagellation. All in the best possible taste

  3. Yes, I think we got all that from the performance, but thanks for saving us the task of Ovid-reading. Shame about the lack of Antonine hunks – we live in hope.

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