In the never-ending desire to make the classics relevant (i.e., marketable) to today’s audience, most Shakespearean plays are set closer to modern times and, as was the case with this year’s Macbeth, sometimes transplanted to a different continent (cross-reference below).
The practice has become so widespread that there is a danger of not remembering or realizing the actual locale and timeframe of the original. In music, the marketing hype usually ends with the downbeat; in the theatre, there may well be those present who believe they are experiencing the “original.” Because the themes are universal, the theory goes, it shouldn’t make any difference. Yet as today’s political conflicts become increasingly muddied (just who are the “baddest” guys in Sri Lanka? How could Saddam Hussein morph from trusted ally to despicable despot so quickly and completely?), knowing who to cheer for has become an art of its own.
For James MacDonald’s début with Julius Caesar at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Part 1 was a compelling demonstration as to why modernization works even as Part II would have had far more impact if the army fatigues and menacing out-of-sight/in-your-ear machinery-of-destruction had reverted to togas, sandals and spears.
With sashes of office and stylized suits bridging the centuries as the troupe brought the murderous story to life and death in designer David Boechler’s new/old-world set, the early scenes were immediately relevant and clear.
Only seen in Part I, the two wives-to-be-widows added much: Yanna McIntosh was totally convincing as she tried in vain (literally/figuratively) to convince Caesar (another sterling performance from Geraint Wyn Davies) to heed the Soothsayer’s (Victor Ertmanis) famous warning (“Beware the Ides of March”) and remain home. In the household of Brutus (Ben Carlson deftly plumbs the terrible depths of his character’s complex soul), long-suffering Portia (Cara Ricketts, a model of pride and anguish) tries to discover the source of her spouse’s uneasiness and soothe it but fails (“I have a man’s mind but a woman’s might. \ How hard it is for women to keep counsel!”).
Relentlessly stirring the pot of power-by-assassination is Cassius (Tom Rooney is perfectly cast as the slimy manipulator). Perhaps the most difficult idea for a newcomer to the play to accept is the need to rid Rome of its most successful general. We hear of Caesar’s dangerous ambition from his adversaries; we see the commander-in-chief summarily refuse a petition for mercy, but have to take the word of others that his death is required for the state to be strong. Thus, are Brutus and his deadly colleagues saviours or sinners? There’s the rub, indeed.
With snippets of wonderfully “foul” music from Alfred Schnittke’s politically charged mind, and such a fine ensemble spinning the tale of intrigue, the events leading up to Caesar’s death and the rhetorically-rich aftermath (save and except for an overly vigorous blood-dripping corpse) satisfied at every twist and turn.
Key to it all is the role of Mark Antony. Jonathan Goad dug deep into the daunting emotional challenges and found just the right range and tone of “Don’t get mad, get even.” His rabble-rousing speech to the masses (unheard by the murderers who foolishly trusted Caesar’s favourite to only extol his virtues—not deliver a call to arms; the weakest moment in the plot), with the easily led citizens literally cheering from the audience was superb. It’s a performance for the ages.
Sadly, Part II doesn’t fulfill the earlier promise. The opening scene where Brutus and Octavius Caesar (Dion Johnstone) discuss the coming battle of Phillippi is “enhanced” by an overhead cam capturing their images walking all over the map and projecting the result onto a large screen behind them. It’s a production device that probably looked better on paper: seeing two crowns of an entirely different sort added nothing to the coming tragedies. (A similar bit of technology, employed in Macbeth, produced a far different effect, and was at one with Shakespeare’s purpose.)
Now that modern battle gear is the only mode of dress, the coming carnage can’t muster the dramatic impact that lurks in the script for one reason: a dagger is not a sword. With unseen helicopters flying overhead and machine guns firing just offstage, the use of seemingly “baby” weapons rings a false note with every suicide or murder. Cassius is despatched with some dignity, Cato (valiantly played by Jon de Leon) leaves the planet awkwardly but the self-impalement of Brutus (from a visual point of view; the acting was fine) just didn’t work. The irony of employing the same implements as sent Caesar to his early grave may have led to this decision, but surely a fixed bayonet could have transcended both ancient Rome and the present day.
There is so much to admire in MacDonald’s work, yet the devil in this detail lessens the knockout impact of the reckless ambition of those who know they are born to lead. JWR