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Review: The Globe’s Julius Caesar (***)

The Globe Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar (July 2014) is not yet available for streaming.
As far as we’re aware, it is also not available on DVD.
We’ll let you know if / when that changes.
It will be available, broadcast in cinemas,
in Australia (6th / 7th June & 20th 21st June),
and New Zealand (14th, 15th, 17th, & 20th June)

Our Bottom Line:

Director Dominic Dromgoole wants you in on the act. It’s Lupercalia time and the festival is in full swing. There’s a puppet show for the incoming audience – go with Christopher Logan’s supremely arch Casca and call us ‘idle’ and ‘sweaty’ – the musicians are out and about and the stall holders are louder than usual. Antony and friends actually run their bare-chested ‘course’ through the mob of smiling groundlings. It is a fertile and very public ground for a popular play.

Our Review (***)

Julius Caesar craves your attention. It’s a brazen-faced crowd-puller with a story that is hard to beat. No wonder then that its second most famous line – after the screaming hurt of ‘Et tu, Brute?’ – is a salute to rhetoric from the pulpit:

‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.’

[Fitting but wacky then that the interval Muzak at this Globe On Screen performance happened to contain Son of a Preacher Man.]

Director Dominic Dromgoole wants you in on the act. It’s Lupercalia time and the festival is in full swing. There’s a puppet show for the incoming audience – go with Christopher Logan’s supremely arch Casca and call us ‘idle’ and ‘sweaty’ – the musicians are out and about and the stall holders are louder than usual. Antony and friends actually run their bare-chested ‘course’ through the mob of smiling groundlings. It is a fertile and very public ground for a popular play.

Why so mass-market? Well, one, there’s the lust for power; and, two, ‘slaying is the word … a deed in fashion’, remarks Brutus, whom you might regard as slayer number one but who is nothing compared to the avenging Antony who knows exactly what civil war will do. He, after all, stirs it up and lets it loose. The grimmest scene in this production is the tearing to pieces – really – of the poet Cinna just for being in the wrong place, with the wrong name and at the wrong time. Is he the other Cinna? Who cares? If he’s the poet, his poetry is rubbish, so kill him anyway.

And the atmospherics are very good. Period instruments play on, in particular the belching sackbuts, and the thunder rolls (maybe an authentic cannonball on the floor of the Heavens). You can also hear actual rainfall and spot some Globe rain ponchos on the ‘common herd’ in the Yard. No-one seems put out by this pale imitation of the dreadful, contagious, weather on the night the conspirators meet in Brutus’ orchard. A constant drum beat warns of danger but it is not heeded. When Caesar is killed, and on the killing grounds of Philippi later, there’s a haunting (?)Thracian  chant to remind us that this play is a Folio-billed ‘tragedie’.

Whose though? In Dromgoole’s mind and in screen director Ross McGibbon’s eyes there are three in the frame: Caesar (George Irving), as Godfather to the whole piece; Brutus (Tom McKay), whose claims to nobility are not all they used to be; and – a welcome newcomer – Cassius (in a telling performance by Anthony Howell). You might think that once mighty Caesar, fast dead, has no claim; but watch out, there’s a surprise in the last scene that drew gasps from the ‘rabblement’. Brutus stands tall as a commanding figure but his steely gaze, long held by the camera, suggests tunnel vision more than hubris. He barely glances at Portia’s bleeding thigh wound. In this play of competing and fatal loyalties I was more with Howell’s sharper and more agile Cassius, incredulous that his friend is proving such an inflexible chump.

Brutus and Cassius Photo: Manuel Harlan
Brutus and Cassius
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Cassius is right on the drachma when he calls Antony ‘a masquer and a reveller’ and Octavius ‘a peevish schoolboy’.  Luke Thompson plays Caesar’s favourite as vain, glib, and dangerous. His manipulation of the common people is so flagrant as to be laughably offensive, which (I think) is the point. Joe Jameson’s crop-headed Octavius, possibly conscious of his later, stupendous, years just about manages not to strut. Both actors are young, in their mid-twenties, and are well-cast in these brash, impudent roles.

The staging is lightly engineered. The main stage is not extended but there are boxes in the Yard for the ‘tag-rag people’ to stand on and shout their greetings or to hurl abuse. A nice touch is when solid looking pillars are pushed over and carried off. Costumes are period Elizabethan with black/white toga wraps for vivid bloodstaining on the steps of the Capitol.  There are choreographed formations of shield and sword that advance onto the plains of Philippi that serve well enough but need tighter camera angles to get scary.

However, what I recall most keenly is not pathos but the incongruity of the all-in dancing number at the end. OK it might recall the holiday antics of the opening – and might be orthodox – but I think a quieter close would have been more appropriate for stage and screen. And that’s the tricky, paradoxical bit. As live entertainment this Julius Caesar is vigorous and welcome but in the picture house it did look and sound rather calculated, as pointed as a stabbing sword.

Julius Caesar Photo: Manuel Harlin

Julius Caesar
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Alan Brown,

Portia Photo: Manuel Harlan

Portia
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Reviewer,
Players-Shakespeare.com

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