A struggle for control at the heart of a state followed by the assassination of the leader; division between rival noblemen and their factions; the resulting civil war; the death of a nobleman’s wife by suicide; and lastly the ritual suicide of all the original conspirators against the leader. Sound familiar? But this is not Japan in the 18th century, this is Rome in the first century B.C., as dramatized by William Shakespeare in “Julius Caesar.”
“Julius Caesar” is being performed by OUDS (Oxford University Dramatic Society), currently on tour in Japan with their English language production. What Shakespeare puts on stage is nothing less than the battle between autocracy and rule for (if not by) the people — a theme that is played out around the world in countless states over and over again. When Brutus, de facto leader of the coup d’etat, shouts “Freedom, liberty, tyranny is dead,” it’s hard to get the echo of the French revolution’s famous rallying cry “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite,” out of your head.
The production, directed by Sam Brown, draws out the modernity of the play’s themes. Huge screenprinted photographic banners bearing images of the play’s main protagonists — like political or pop icons — dominate the stage, and when Caesar’s ghost appears before the Battle of Phillipi, he appears as a projection on a screen. This approach works well.
Julius Caesar (played by Stephenjohn Holgate) is an impressive, statuesque figure, every bit the authoritarian statesman, while Brutus (played by Ilan Goodman) displays all the nervous energy of the idealist. When, in plotting Caesar’s downfall, he advises “Let us carve him as a dish fit for the gods” so that the conspirators are seen as “purgers but not murderers,” you can’t help but see him as a modern day revolutionary, attempting to separate political expediency from personal responsibility.
The central roles are all well-cast: Elisabeth Gray, as Portia, has an authority far beyond her years when, in a central scene on the eve of the famous Ides of March assassination, she forces her husband to reveal his plans to her. She acts with unflinching rhetorical determination, like an experienced politician’s wife.
The supporting roles are equally well-acted, and you get the sense that director Sam Brown — through his extensive workshops and rehearsals — has concentrated as much on the human details of Shakespeare’s text as on the grand themes. For instance, Brutus’ servant Lucius (played by Dan Harkin) is a brilliant comic foil to his master’s stoic idealism.
Brown has been lucky to have the support of the RSC’s prolific fight director Terry King (who must have choreographed almost every stage fight in the theatrical repertoire by now) in his decision to stylize the movements of the street and pitched battles in the text, focusing instead on the dignity and intimacy of death.
For once, watching this play, I did not feel that the ending had become overwhelmed by boisterous and theatrically ineffective stage fights. The Battle of Phillipi ends with crushing defeat for the Republican conspirators, and Shakespeare’s political sympathies are perhaps detected in the way that he puts the suicides of the vanquished Cassius and then Brutus centerstage. The play is full of descriptions of celestial signs and wonders, and in this production the sense of political stasis and cosmic unrest remains to the end.
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