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Julius Caesar: splendid

by | Jun 24, 2023 | Review | 0 comments

publicity photo for Julius Caesar at Bard on the Beach

Publicity photo of Jennifer Lines as Mark Antony.
(Photo and image design by Emily Cooper)

Director Cherissa Richards’s production of Julius Caesar for Bard on the Beach is riveting from start to finish. I have never experienced such a successful interpretation of this play.

Part of the credit has to go to Stephen Drover’s driving adaptation, which cuts away extraneous text and exposes such a high-stakes drama that, when I glanced around the audience, I saw folks leaning forward in their seats, hungry to know what was going to happen next.

Julius Caesar is about ambition, ethics, and rhetoric — the persuasive power of speech.

At the beginning of the play, Caesar has just returned from a successful military campaign and there’s a push, led by his friend Mark Antony, to crown him emperor. But a group of senators in the Roman republic are uneasy with the idea of so much power being invested in a single individual. They fear tyranny — or say they do — so they start hatching a plot to assassinate Caesar.

Their motivations vary in purity. Cassius, the ringleader, is clearly selfish: she resents the idea of Caesar having more power than she does. (Many of the traditionally male roles are played by women in this production.) Brutus, on the other hand, is a good friend of Caesar’s but joins the plot to murder him to save the integrity of the republic. (More on that still-murky motivation later.)

The conspirators stab Caesar to death in the Senate. In a speech at Caesar’s funeral, Mark Antony turns the people against the conspirators, and civil war breaks out.

One of the great successes of Richards’s modern-dress interpretation is that it is so suspenseful. She enlists help on this front from sound designer Kate De Lorme, whose subtly rumbling score induces foreboding on an almost cellular level before exploding into bursts of violence.

Richards also emphasizes the play’s sense of supernatural dread by expanding the presence of the Soothsayer (“Beware the Ides of March”). Not only does actor Scott Bellis play the role with such unnerving knowingness that he gave me goosebumps, thanks to Drover’s adaptation, we see more of him than usual — chanting, casting spells.

But Richards’s core accomplishment is her illumination of the theme of persuasion. That works right from the get-go in the presence of the mob, the Roman citizenry, who flood the aisles in this mounting, their amplified voices creating waves of contradictory responses, cheering Brutus’s integrity one minute, damning him the next.

Intriguingly, much of the resonance of these scenes derives from our current political climate. In previous productions, I have been offended by Shakespeare’s characterization of everyday citizens as credulous idiots. With the rise of the populist right, this characterization now feels more disturbingly accurate.

Rhetoric can, of course, be used in positive ways — as in Mark Antony’s sly, compassionate funeral speech (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”). Without directly accusing the conspirators of treason, she turns the crowd against them. Actor Jennifer Lines delivers this speech with such clarity and depth of feeling that she had me sucking back my impulse to sob.

Throughout, her performance is extraordinary — and so is the work of many other women in this production. Richards’s non-traditional casting allows skilled actors to access a playing field from which they are too often barred.

Emma Slipp is a wonder as the manipulative Cassius. I have never seen Slipp assay anything like this character before, but she fills it with all her intelligence and subtlety: her Cassius is always scheming, always calculating her position. And, in two of the best scenes in the play, Chelsea Rose (as Brutus’s wife Portia) and Sharon Crandall (as Caesar’s spouse Calphurnia) shine, even in their characters’ failed attempts to influence their husbands. It’s such a pleasure to see Rose cast in a role that allows her to inhabit the full gravitas of her presence.

Andrew Wheeler makes the living Caesar haughty but human, and Caesar’s ghost the chillingly implacable embodiment of Brutus’s guilt.

Which brings us to Andrew McNee’s portrait of Brutus. Even though the script is titled Julius Caesar, this is really Brutus’s play. And McNee’s Brutus is the softest spot in this production for me. I think that’s largely a function of the difficulty of presenting the character in a way that contemporary audiences can get a bead on.

Reading about the script, I was reminded that we’re supposed to understand that Brutus is a Stoic. Being a Stoic, Brutus supposedly values reason over emotion, and the philosophy of Stoicism endorses the murder of tyrants, all of which helps to explain Brutus’s surprising willingness to assassinate his friend. And it’s worth noting that, in some ways at least, the play seems to present Brutus as a hero: near the end, Mark Antony calls him “the noblest Roman of them all.”

Still, it seems to me that, as written, there’s ambiguity. Cassius comments on Brutus’s persuadability: “Well, Brutus, thou are noble; yet I see thy honourable mettle may be wrought from that it is disposed.” And Brutus himself admits that he’s on shaky ground when it comes to tyrannicide. “I know no personal cause to spurn him,” he says of Caesar, before going on to reason that power might corrupt his friend.

For me, that opens the possibility that Brutus, like Trump, like many of us, justifies whatever he wants to do through a venal form of internal rhetoric.

What I got from McNee confused me. His Brutus isn’t a hard-edged Stoic. Nor is he sickeningly self-interested. Especially in the first half of this production, he mostly struck me as so baffled that I was surprised when he committed to action. For me, McNee’s work fared better in the second half, when the character has more clearly comprehensible political and military objectives.

Still, the production is so strong that my questions about Brutus’s character are mere wrinkles.

And the design elements sing. Pam Johnson’s postmodern set includes both sleek video panels that show images — of riots, for instance — and set pieces that evoke collapsing Roman architecture. Inspired by Italian couture, Jessica Oostergo’s gorgeous costumes clearly delineate the play’s two political camps.

I have rarely left a production so satisfied.

JULIUS CAESAR By William Shakespeare. Adapted by Stephen Drover. Directed by Cherissa Richards. On Friday, June 23. A Bard on the Beach production running in the Mainstage Tent in Vanier Park until September 24. Tickets and info

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