Thoughts on NT Live: Julius Caesar

This is mostly random — I wanted to put something down here about what I was thinking, but I don’t really want to write a formal review. After seeing Hamlet recently, I realized that just seeing theater really invigorates me and have resolved to see more. So I bought a ticket to the next NT Live transmission, Julius Caesar, directed by Nicholas Hytner, with Ben Whishaw as Brutus and David Morrisey as Marc Anthony. If you don’t know the story of the Shakespeare play, you can read a synopsis here.

The play: This is [cough] not my favorite Shakespeare play, as I, like millions of U.S. Americans, was herded through it in ninth grade, uch. I am not that interested in the Romans, and the main thing I took away from it in grad school was that we need to look at it as an Elizabethan play about government, and in that situation, democracy was not the heroic stance that it seems like to us. Early moderns were quite suspicious of democracy. The theme of the play originally was probably “the risks of what could happen when the governmental system becomes unstable and no one’s sure who’s in charge,” not “democracy vs. empire: democracy is worth dying for” which is how it’s usually understood today. I occasionally talk about this play in a western civ course, and did so again this fall after last summer’s Shakespeare in the Park performance became an object of such vehement discussion, but mostly to point out how Roman culture has become a touchstone of various kinds for our own concerns (architecture, literature, political values, arts, etc.). Despite the bloodiness of the action, I’ve always seen this play as a political set piece. But the blood is important: it says something about the Romans that they engaged in this kind of thing, primarily that there were things at stake to them beyond the intellectual. This aspect was important to Shakespeare, too — not just because Elizabethan audiences were bloodthirsty, but also because of the tumultuous age in which he lived.

This play: The staging puts us in a contemporary setting that is somewhere between rock concert and 2016 GOP political rally. This worked for me most of the time except (unfortunately) at the very beginning, where the crowd “warm up” with a cover band was too long and not compelling. The play — two hours long without intermission — was described in the reviews as “taut” and “pared down,” but not very much has been cut beyond parts of the battle scenes; it’s one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays anyway. Like the controversial 2017 NYC production, Caesar is labeled quite obviously as Donald Trump, with the corresponding baseball cap; there’s also a reference to Stalin. I find this kind of thing heavy-handed unless the production has correspondingly thoughtful (non-obvious) insights to offer, and I didn’t find them here. Apart from the moving levels of the stage, which sped the action quite a bit, this was a very standard modern reading of the play. Everyone’s wearing contemporary clothing and instead of knives they have guns. That choice emphatically does not work for me; the ease of killing with a handgun stands in no relationship to the frighteningly bloody and in-your-face brutality of political assassinations and suicides accomplished with knives and swords and the visceral, physical reality of those deeds. Every death on this stage looked obviously like it was being mimed. Smearing your hands with fake blood as a gesture in that direction is largely meaningless. Summary: Nothing about the staging was bad but nothing about it made me view the play in a new light, either, or think any thoughts I hadn’t had before.

The performances: There was a time delay in the transmission of about a second or second-and-a-half between the film and the sound. (Kudos to non-native speakers who sat through this: it decreases comprehensibility for me and I can’t imagine what this would have been like in a foreign language.) All of the performances were fine, but the big standout for me was Michelle Fairley as Cassius, who combined her excellent delivery with palpable emotion and fear. It was the only performance that really drew me in to thinking about the emotional investments of the characters in what I usually see as a relatively abstract political play. I thought David Morrissey was excellent and his delivery of the “Brutus is an honorable man” speech moved me as well. Adjoa Andoh was fantastic as Casca, building something important out of a minor role, although the snappiness and humor of her work was the element of the play most noticeably and negatively impacted by the sound delay. Whishaw was fine (and yes, I noticed they were trying to make him a liberal intellectual / egghead revolutionary) but mostly a mild disappointment. He can’t seem to do anything about his comical walk, and his Aspergery gestures and expressions were completely at odds with my picture of the virtuous Roman. I couldn’t figure out how this Brutus could get his nerve together enough to actually murder anyone. It didn’t help that he visibly flinched when his wife jumped on his lap. The only point at which he was truly convincing to me in the role were in the scenes at Act Four, Scene Three and following, where he’d been roughed up enough with makeup that he seemed something like a general, but even there his hand gestures were a distraction.

Question I have: I found myself thinking, comparing this play to the Hamlet I saw last time, that you can totally tell which of these actors regularly does theater and regularly does Shakespeare (or has done a lot of it in the past) and which does not. Whishaw is definitely in the later crowd and it’s noticeable. So it made me wonder whether it that was noticeable to non-fan spectators of The Crucible in 2014 that Armitage hadn’t been on stage in a while? I have to say that the actor who seemed most “polished” in that production, the guy who played Danforth, also seemed to be phoning it in half the time. I didn’t notice such a gap between Armitage and the rest of the company as I have noticed between Whishaw and Cumberbatch and the rest of the cast in these plays.

Summary: It was all fine. Not sure $18 worth of fine, but this kind of cultural exposure and the provocation of thinking about it still makes it worth it. I’ll probably buy a ticket to this year’s last play, which is the much-disapproved-of Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff. I was also intrigued by the announcement of Antony and Cleopatra with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo for later in the year.

~ by Servetus on March 23, 2018.

4 Responses to “Thoughts on NT Live: Julius Caesar”

  1. While I can see and agree with many of your points, it’s worth noting that Whishaw has been on stage in at least one show a season for the last two years. He’s frequently on stage, to the point that it happens more often than he appears in film or on TV–he’s becoming something a bit unusual: a stage star who does film to support his stage work, rather than a film star who does stage as a novelty.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the info. I looked at wikipedia which makes it look like he spends a lot more time on film than anywhere else. It doesn’t matter to me that much (I’m not invested in Whishaw), but there is a difference in the quality of his delivery.

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  2. Answering my own question: I wonder if the speech issue I pinpointed here is an index of him not having been on stage. I didn’t have this issue at all in NYC in 2016.

    https://meandrichard.wordpress.com/2014/09/12/toward-a-review-of-richard-armitage-as-john-proctor-in-the-crucible/

    Like

  3. […] as a whole (and I’ve had this thought before with a lead in an NT Live piece — Whishaw’s Brutus in Julius Caesar). The other actors seem to be going for a naturalistic, contemporary, if nonetheless precise style, […]

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