Julius Caesar Review

“Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war”

There’s more to Julius Caesar than a few quotable lines and more to it than being an exercise in oratory, but if you haven’t seen it for quite a while – and I’m not sure why it has had less of a profile in recent years – that’s what probably remains in your memory. The Globe’s 2014 production however is a reminder that Julius Caesar has a lot more to offer and why it is still indeed one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Audience participation is part of the philosophy of what the Globe do, and it’s particularly relevant for this work. Julius Caesar was actually the first of Shakespeare’s plays performed in the newly constructed Globe theatre back in 1599, and seen in this way in the modern Bankside replica of the theatre, you get some idea of how powerfully the work might have come across back then.

Dominic Droomgoole’s 2014 production takes full advantage of this, the performance commencing long before the play starts, with revellers even outside the theatre celebrating the feast of Lupercal, whipping up a fervour in the audience that is carried through into the wooden open-roofed structure of the Globe theatre and onto the stage itself. A procession weaves its way through the standing-room audience at the opening, heralding the solemn march of Caesar himself through to the Capitol. When a voice cries out to “Beware the Ides of March”, it seems to arise out of the situation itself, implicating the audience in the feeling that there are grave tidings ahead, that they are part of it all, and that it won’t be quietly played.

You think they might at least have cleaned the blood stains more thoroughly from the stage before this performance (my first thought was that perhaps Titus Andronicus was on the previous evening, but no, they’d really need to put down plastic sheeting for that one), but again, it’s an ominous portent of what lies ahead, and there are portents aplenty not only of the fate that lies ahead for Caesar, but in the way it is going to be played out. The lion of the Capitol fairly roars here, while Cassius and Brutus can be said to be practically the embodiment of the lean and hungry conspirators.

One other factor also immediately apparent, is that the play is going to be performed ‘period’. And not just Roman period, but Elizabethan doing Roman period. The themes of Julius Caesar are ideal, one would think, for modernisation; power, ambition, politics, war, conspiracy and betrayal, how little things have changed, how little human nature has changed. Modernisation is not a part of the main productions at the Globe, and it’s not needed here either. Shakespeare’s play remains insightful and timeless, its themes and their relevance bloodily apparent regardless of the period it is set in. Retaining the Elizabethan setting in the Globe in fact highlights that the play is about more than an imaginative setting of historical events in Rome, but is also about what Shakespeare could see being enacted in England and the world around him where there are concerns about the handover of power and the ambition of those who would lay claim to the crown.

Julius Caesar however is also more than just being a play about power and ambition. There are surely greater Shakespeare plays about these subjects; Macbeth covers the darker side of overreaching ambition, dark betrayal and the terrible torment of retaining that power once those ambitions are evilly realised; Othello deals much better with jealousy, with the turning of hearts. What Julius Caesar has to offer that these other works don’t – even the English history plays don’t do it as well – is consider the importance not just of the various political and royal factions conspiring and competing against one another for the power to rule, but the necessity of winning the hearts and minds of the general populace. “The rabblement hooted and clapp’d their chopp’d hands“, speaks Casca in his disdain for the uproar greeting Caesar’s entrance and his turning away of an offered crown, but as does Brutus later, he underestimates the importance of the “rabblement” if one is to seek to grasp the moral high ground.

If there’s one area that remains most relevant, and assures the greatness of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it’s this. Mark Antony’s famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” speech (just even listen to the inclusive titles he uses to address the common people!) is a masterclass in oratory. Anyone seeking to inspire not only the party faithful but reach out to the wider population of a nation, and not only inspire, but subtly bring them around to their way of thinking, need only study this speech in the context of this play to learn everything there is to know about the art of oratory and the art of politics. Politicians can learn a lot from this speech, and, indeed many of them I would imagine already know it far too well.

That in itself is a measure of the greatness of Julius Caesar, but there is much more to it. There’s a great deal of art in how Cassius and particularly Brutus gauge and misjudge the mood of the general public (politicians again, ignore this at your peril), the majority of the play exploring the shifting ground, the anticipatory excitement in that period of transition between rulers, finding terrific metaphors and symbols in the mysterious and terrible portents that abound in Rome this fatal March. The deed done, Caesar assassinated, the justifications made in fine speeches, the struggle is only beginning. Shakespeare not only recognises the power of swaying masses of people, but explores the unpredictable consequences of what happens when those uncontrollable forces are unleashed. “Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war“, it’s no wonder that they can’t entirely get the stage blood out of the wood.

It would be easy for a director to sway sympathy for one cause or another in the casting alone, but Dominic Droomgoole’s casting is even-handed, allowing the characters and the words that Shakespeare has crafted for them to speak for themselves. It’s about giving it as directly as possible to the people standing right there in front of you, that’s what the Globe is all about, and it’s all the more important for this particular work. Antony Howell’s Cassius, Tom McKay’s Brutus and Christopher Logan’s Casca are indeed young, lean and hungry, delivering the text without any unnecessary elaboration or declamation. George Irving’s Caesar is a little more of the old school, but for good reason, setting him apart from the rest. His individuality also allows the director to pull an effective twist at the end of the play that remains entirely in keeping with its ominous intent.

Globe on Screen’s Julius Caesar is released on DVD by Opus Arte. The DVD is dual-layer and encoded in NTSC format for international compatibility. The disc is region-free.

The Globe productions are all filmed in High Definition, and some of them have found their way in that format onto Blu-ray discs in the past. More recently, they’ve been released on DVD only, and that’s the case with the 2014 productions of Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus. The video quality for Julius Caesar looks good however even in Standard Definition NTSC. The image is clear, sharp and colourful, and certainly good enough for standard sized screens. Anyone more used to High Definition presentations on larger screens will find that the detail isn’t all there and colours are a little oversaturated, particularly as evening draws in and there’s less light. Contrasts are strong and blacks are not greatly detailed. On a computer monitor, macroblocking, grain-shifting and instability of the encoding is also much more evident, particularly when there is camera movement, but never to any distracting level.

The audio tracks are plain Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The recording of the live performance is good, the dialogue never less than clear and perfectly audible. There are no radio mics used, just whatever microphones are dotted around the stage, which makes mixing rather difficult, particularly in getting a balance between the very loud drumming, the stage noise and the spoken dialogue. It’s not ideal, but other than moments of loud booming, the overall sound quality is good for a live theatre performance.

Should you have any difficulties following the text however, optional white subtitles are available. Subtitles are in English only this time. On the disc itself, the only extra feature is a Cast Gallery. The enclosed booklet provides a synopsis and an essay by Colin Burrow on Shakespeare’s interest in putting Roman affairs on the stage at the Globe.

Dominic Dromgoole’s 2014 production of Julius Caesar for the Globe impressively captures the dynamic of the work, its power and resonance, its meaning and relevance, its subtleties and its dramatic action. There’s no need for any clever reworking or modernisation to make its points any more relevant; men may indeed “construe things after their own fashion / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves“. The questions of power and ambition, of political point scoring and the importance of winning over public sympathy to a cause are as evident and meaningful to an audience today as they were to an audience in 1599. Seeing it performed this way in the Globe, it can be important and instructive to consider the past in relation to today and Dominic Droomgoole’s production brings that right out to the “rabblement” with remarkable force and impact.


Updated: Aug 24, 2015

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