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Thursday, 2 July 2009

Ooo, so close: Julius Caesar falls just short of excellence

Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare
Directed by James MacDonald
Featuring Geraint Wyn Davies, Ben Carlson, Tom Rooney, Jonathan Goad

The Story: Fearing Julius Caesar’s meteoric rise in power after his military victories, several noblemen conspire to kill him, rather than let him become Emperor. Although he loves Caesar, Marcus Brutus is persuaded to take part in the murder for the good of his country, but his noble qualities lead to his defeat by Marc Antony and Octavius Caesar.

As Shakespeare’s plays go, Julius Caesar is dull fare by today’s media standards. Political intrigue, blood spilled in the capital, civil war: we see it nightly on the news. So it takes a director with a deft hand, and actors that ooze charisma of their own, to make this play memorable. This team comes very, very close.

It starts with Geraint Wyn Davies as Julius Caesar. Mr. Davies plays the arrogant Caesar with more nobility than ostentation, giving us a Caesar that Brutus and Marc Antony really could loyally respect. As his wife, Yanna MacIntosh has not much to do in the small role, but she telegraphs so much of Calphurnia’s fear and anxiety that she is worth watching closely, even when she is not speaking at all.

Ben Carlson plays the logical, ethical Brutus, a character who is a real enigma. He is supposed to be the tragic hero of the play, and in this Mr. Carlson nimbly succeeds. He shows every facet of Brutus’ contradictions of burden and ardor in such a powerful manner that one actually believes in his otherwise questionable reasons for murder. His monologues are thoughtful, and his chemistry with Tom Rooney as Cassius is fascinating.

Playing Brutus’ manipulator, foil and friend Cassius, Tom Rooney elevates the character past the traditional sly fox into something more interesting: a sort of outsider looking in, wanting to be respected by Caesar who instead neglects him. So Mr. Rooney’s Cassius is resentful and distrustful, but also weighty and sorrowful, resulting in a very intense performance.

As the charismatic Marc Antony, Jonathan Goad brings a few unusual touches to the role, making Antony appear as inscrutable as Brutus. At first his Antony seems merely good-natured and likeable, but Mr. Goad morphs Antony into a man of unease, sorrow, rage, and eventually into a much different character – an ambitious lecher who manipulates people as easily as Cassius.

Director James MacDonald stages some brilliant moments, but falls short on others.

Brilliant: having Brutus face the fatal consequences of an ill-timed attack, the grave markers of his fallen soldiers. It is a poignant tableau, one sure to choke-up members of military families, especially with its solemn musical cues. Not-so-brilliant: actors in the aisles representing the mob. They may make the audience feel part of the crowd, but they also obscure sight lines and impair hearing.

Brilliant: having the conspirators treat their plot as a solemn ritual – each takes a dagger in turn, and salutes Brutus with their weapons over their hearts. It lends false legitimacy to their deed. Not so brilliant: having the all-important soothsayer deliver the ‘ides of March’ warning cry from off stage, then appear on a dolly as a cripple. He hard to see in the crowd onstage and his words then sound more ridiculous than menacing.

Brilliant: having the corpse of Julius Caesar begin to bleed when it is unveiled before the mob. It is spooky, gruesome and chilling. Not so brilliant: an overhead video projection of Antony and Octavius’ battle map of Italy. It may strike a high-tech contrast with the humble camp of Brutus’ forces, but the rule is, if there’s a television screen in the room, people will watch it, and not the actors. It is too distracting.

Lastly, the set, designed by David Boechler, feels less “cold ancient history”, and more “warm, alive and now”. The costumes designs are just as interesting: in the Senate, there is a combination of elegant Edwardian and Japanese silk garments, which sounds strange, but is oddly striking. For the civil war, the Eastern influence works very well for Antony’s soldiers – they resemble Samurai warriors, while. Brutus’ soldiers are clad in winter camouflage (with a wink to Canadians).

James MacDonald has more mettle than Des McAnuff in their somewhat similar versions of militaristic Shakespeare. He digs deeper, and there are some brilliant, forceful moments. But the few missteps fracture this otherwise impressively layered production, so the whole thing does not quite reach Mount Olympus’ heights.

It is, however, the first play I am going to see for a second time.

Julius Caesar continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 31.

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