[Bloodbath and Beyond]
For all the controversy surrounding the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar last year, casting a Trump-like leader in the title role, the Pop-up Globe’s rendition of the play is a far less critical reflection of our contemporary world. Outside of a few banners with familiar taglines and some playful anachronisms, director Rita Stone’s vision adheres closer to a version of Ancient Rome. That’s not to say it holds no mirror to the way we live now: Julius Caesar, perhaps more than any other play at the Pop-Up this year, has the most political relevance. It is, after all, about the collision between private and the public. How our leaders choose to operate in times of crisis and how the mob mentality reacts to it. How people can take politics into their own hands and the cataclysmic results that follow. At its best, it’s an eerie reflection of the way things are and the way things could be.
Instead of political commentary, this production’s main draw is the reversing of gender roles, with the male characters played by female actors and vice versa. If the reversal doesn’t illuminate or subvert the text in any shocking way, it does provide proof – however unnecessary – that even the most traditionally masculine of Shakespeare’s plays lose nothing with a female cast. Considering the criticism the Pop-up received in its first two years for its traditional-casting, this is a step in the right direction. Somewhat more radical is the shackling of the male actors in rags and chains to embody the wives, Calpurnia and Portia, which does serve as a stark commentary on the misogyny in the play’s Ancient Roman setting. Sebastien Holland Dudding makes for a affecting Portia, each line read with desperation, yearning and unhealthy devotion. Andrew Laing embodies a palpable sense of terror in the prophetic Calpurnia. The choice though to rewrite gender pronouns of the characters proves unnecessary and somewhat distracting.
Donogh Rees may not have the most stage time as the titular Caesar, but she has a captivating presence, bringing a necessary gravitas to the stage. It’s an air that convinces us of the character’s status immediately. When his haunting spirit returns subsequently, Rees almost makes us forget this is ultimately a poor (wo)man’s version of Banquo’s ghost.
And while the play might be better named after Brutus, he’s infamously shrouded in ambiguities. The text is never quite clear what it is that motivates him, leaving it up to the director to frame his behaviour and motivations. Is he a petty agent of jealousy and ambition like that of Macbeth or is he vindicated by a greater sense of good and justice? This question isn’t answered definitively in the production, but instead embodies these multitudes and contradictions in Sheena Irving’s performance. The lack of psychological consistency becomes its own defining feature, grounding each action in a sense of existential confusion, and suggesting the real battle is inside Brutus rather than on the battlefield.
In Cassius, Alison Bruce displays the scheming bravado that would be perfect for the role of Iago. Though the character lacks the Machiavellian wit of Shakespeare’s most famous villains, Bruce chews the scenery hungrily, displaying an obvious affinity for such characters.
Jessie Lawrence’s Mark Antony lurks in the peripheries of the play, clothed in inappropriately fluoro lycra. But she steals the show during the play’s most famous speech, tearing down the conspirators who murdered Caesar, each repetition of ‘honourable man’ burning with increasing irony. It’s playful, sardonic and bitter. You can sense the swaying power of the Bard’s sophistry here, catapulting the audience into the shoes of the Roman citizens.
Beyond the sheer watchability of the performances, it’s the staging of the conspiracy-soaked action that is unmissable, combining gratuitous violence with Shakespeare’s language. Caesar’s assassination is undoubtedly the visual centerpiece and highlight of the production, each knife plunge sharper and more painful than the last. The clumsy and reckless glee that pours out with his blood is executed to perfection.
Other instances of bloodsoaked mayhem do veer dangerously close to meaninglessness by comparison. Everything that can be played for laughs is played for laughs, softening the tension and weight of the action. The seriousness of violence is watered down by attempts at accessibility and humour. Sophistication is sacrificed for slapstick. The supporting cast, in particular, inhabit clownish personas for the most part, adding up to a violent comedy of errors rather than a political thriller. And, by the end, suicide piles upon suicide without emotional investment. The deaths begin to feel hollow, even if they are captivating to watch.
Those hoping for the Pop-up Globe production of Julius Caesar that speaks directly to today’s climate will find it disappointingly apolitical, but the play stands on its own without the trappings of Trump or contemporary backdrops. This is a cleverly staged and adrenaline-filled evening that boasts first-rate performances. If something is missing it’s that the production doesn’t overcome the play’s missing heart. It’s ultimately a tragedy without a clear hero or villain to root for. A play that, like its central character Brutus, is unclear about what it’s trying to say. Or, perhaps it says the only thing that needs to be said. That politics is a bloody affair.
Julius Caesar plays various dates at the Pop-up Globe.