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As far as I know, there is no technical term for the fear some directors have of opening scenes, but Jonathan Miller has the most noteworthy case of it around today. The English physician turned thespian has once again axed the opening scene of a Shakespearean production, plunging right into the middle of the action without preface. This year's Oxford-Cambridge Shakespeare Company offering, Julius Caesar, like last year's Hamlet, is a stripped-down version, with several scenes, excessive staging, and lavish costuming all done away with.
Unlike last year's Hamlet, though, Julius Caesar is a compelling production. It has many of the OCSC's characteristics, especially an unending search for modernism which has been the company's trademark. Many of the approaches to costuming and scenery as well as many of the interpretations of the text which the company has taken are questionable, but the net effect is to give an air of electricity to a play which has often seemed simply unactable.
In this production, Dick Goodall plays Caesar as a white-greatcoated, tophatted gentleman by Oscar Wilde out of Henry James. The rest of the men in the cast appear in motley bodystockings, and the women in rather shapeless, unflattering costumes. The effect is stunning, providing a brilliant contrast in which Caesar emerges as the master spirit of his age, surrounded by men of lesser vision who do not begin to approach his stature. The costuming neutralizes Shaw's famous criticism that this play turns the giant of ancient history into a cavilling buffoon. Goodall's Caesar is masterful, dominating the play even after his assassination, as he stalks silently around the stage watching the defeat of Brutus.
But if Caesar is to be played up, it must of necessity be at the expense of Brutus. Andrew Hilton's Brutus is lost from the start, when he comes onstage in a drab bodystocking which fails to distinguish him from even the three-line walk-ons. He simply lacks the physical stature which Brutus requires to dominate the play. There is nothing wrong with Hilton's approach to the role, but his costuming detracts severely from his credibility. This defect changes the entire emphasis of the play. Normally, Julius Caesar is a drama which builds consistently to Antony's eulogy of Brutus, "This was the noblest Roman of them all". In this performance, though, the action of this play is resolved by Caesar's funeral, and the last two acts become denouement, in which Brutus gets his inevitable punishment. Caesar, not Brutus, is the hero, Brutus, not Caesar, the buffoon.
The approach is unorthodox, but it works. The approach is interesting enough to keep the play going, without dragging even in the normally dreadful third act. The actors do interesting tricks with the phrasing, as when James Harris as Antony uses the line "Friends, Romans, Countrymen..." as a desperate attempt to get the attention of a hostile crowd busy snarling at Caesar's body. Harris's Antony transcends his bodystocking to establish a character, as does David Snodin's Cassius. Snodin's phrasing is highly eclectic, bringing out nuances from his speeches which are not normally developed, and nicely establishing Cassius as a major character, far better than any of the other conspirators.
Much of the production depends on mime, on suggesting rather than acting out. There are no props: even Caesar's mantle, which Antony addresses in his funeral oration, is made out of empty air. The assassination and battle scenes are elaborately choreographed and acted out tableaux, replete with ritualistic mock blows and falls. Somehow, they work in a way that a literal reading of the script never could. The scene of Caesar's ghost, mocking the actions of the servant as he holds the sword on which Brutus falls is utterly chilling, as no prop-ridden version could be. The inarticulate, death-masked crowd at Caesar's funeral is likewise more effective than a more vocal group.
Bernard Culshaw's set is perfect for this production, consisting simply of a ramp in the middle half of the stage leading to a backdrop, constructed as strictly as a seventeenth century Italian stage, focused on a vanishing point in a painted setting sun. It is a bone set to go with a bare production, and, like the rest of the production, it demonstrates a solid grasp of the fundamentals.
Coming after a disastrous Hamlet, Julius Caesar is a refreshing reminder of how good the OCSC can be, and usually is. Many purists will be offended by the rehabilitation of Caesar but the effect is to make this the most interesting production of this play in a decade.
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