The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
April 20, 2005

Julius Caesar - Directed by Deborah Warner

Posted by Richard D. North

Julius Caesar
Directed by Deborah Warner
Barbican, London
14th April - 14th May 2005

Richard D. North's Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence is published this week by the Social Affairs Unit.

Deborah Warner is both a great and an infuriating director. Her Julius Caesar becomes her. It is fit for an age of soap opera, sit com and self-absorption ours in short. It is especially fit for the age of sofa government by superannuated flower children. Her account of the worlds of politics and war is truer to our age than to Shakespeare's, and still less to Shakespeare's account of the classical age. But even as an account of our own age, it is trivial.

We have here a play in two parts. The first is set in Rome, but it is a Rome which looks remarkably like the sullen foothills, the grey purlieus, of the South Bank. Here we see the first of the great Warner qualities: her crowd is worthy of Bill Viola or late Caravaggio. Her mob is a menacingly capricious animal, but in its noise you do hear the voices of people. Each player is a dysfunctional individual, and they fall into acquiescence with something of the lovely mindlessness of a shoal of fish or a flock of birds sensing a new threat or a new opportunity and swirling into a new orientation. From the start, you realise you are in the hands of someone who could ring great performances from minnows and starlings, let alone from the cream of British theatre.

But, already, we see how any contemporary parallels which are at all real are likely also to be uncomfortable to soft left liberal sensibilities. Shakespeare doesn't like "The People", and so the unpopularity of any course of action doesn't militate against it, at least morally. Thank god, we can muse, our own politicians do not pander to Warner's crowd, which so uncannily resembles the poll tax or anti-globalizing rioters, and resembles them much more than the rather polite anti-war or CND protestors.

This is not a cavil. Warner insists we scour the production for modern parallels with mobs and wars. Isn't that why she has sprinkled her programme with images of Bush and Blair and their soldiers, as though to say that those who have eyes will see these men in this play? So we play her version of this old game. Are our leaders Caesars, perhaps: each a dictator? (A bad pitch as Blair seeks re-election with his record hanging out for all to see). Or are they Cassius and Brutus in their toppling of Saddam Hussein, cast as Caesar? But Caesar is one of the most attractive and arguably by far the most noble characters in the play. He certainly isn't being punished for war-mongering. Caesar, we know, has come back from wars, but they were triumphs and not the cause of his unpopularity with the conspirators. What's more, he's back from imperial wars and the West has not been involved in one of those for a very long time.

Simon Russell Beale (Warner's Cassius) puts his finger on the best sort of relevance to look for. He has remarked to interviewers that it is the hunt for the characters' motivation which is so important. Rightly nervous of seeking direct historical parallels, he points us toward looking at how Shakespeare is discussing the interplays of personal feeling and political statement, between private intentions and public rhetoric. This is indeed pay dirt. It is not so much that Julius Caesar shows us politicians saying one thing and doing another. It is that we see them agonising not merely about what is right policy, but how to achieve it. When we watch Cassius, Brutus and Mark Antony speak, we are often hearing vacillations and decisions being various masked and presented to the public. They internally agonise about what they think is right or politic, and about the utterance which will bring it to fruition. And yes, Shakespeare is interested in the personalities the childhood legacies behind the policies.

All this goes perfectly to the problem of Blair, and perhaps even of Bush. Blair is the politician who has succeeded by being anything anyone wanted him to be. He has made a thing of how simple and straightforward he is. But he is both the most presented politician we have seen and the most opaque. What's more, this strange Post Modern prime minister, this mediated figure, then ups and goes to war on what may be the highest moral motives, and does so as he courts vast unpopularity. And he dissembles royally in case neither mob nor parliament will follow. He is a child of the '60s and as such is proud to be personal, provisional and popular: and then he goes and becomes almost heroic. Blimey, is he a noble Caesar, after all? Bush is a different kettle of fish, but we wonder of him whether anyone could be as straightforward as he seems.

So of any of the Shakespeare characters and any of our current war leaders, we could ask the same questions. Which has shaped his policy most to the need to be popular? Which is most seizing the main chance? Which is most honest as he describes to himself or others his purposes? Which is most prepared to sacrifice friends to higher purpose? Which understands ruthlessness best? How much are personal kinks and quirks at work here?

Does Warner show us a JC which helps us get to the heart of these matters, which she advertises as concerning her?

The biggest disadvantage with her style is that it is all too modern in its preoccupation with personal issues, and with neuroses in particular. Shakespeare is not afraid of the neurotic, and shows it to us wherever we look. But in any of his plays, and in Julius Caesar in particular, he is also wrestling with classical virtues. So may be our current generation of war leaders. Honour, self-sacrifice, nobility, statecraft and reason all matter in his world, and quite possibly in the world of our own leaders, and they don't matter nearly so much in Deborahville. In her Wasteland she had Fiona Shaw getting terribly wound up. In her Richard II (with Fiona Shaw again in the lead) there was lots of camp gossipiness and viciousness and far too little of the regal. Perhaps she is so sure that absolute monarchs are a silly idea that she doesn't mind them seeming silly. But it all made Shakespeare's already tricky story of a flawed king finding real at any rate a different kind of - grandness in rejection rather more difficult to believe or care about.

Anyway, at the Barbican her ploys and predilections make the best performance amongst many good ones almost untenable. Simon Russell Beale can "do" highly civilised, tortured indecision and flappiness until the cows come home. But his Cassius is way too febrile, presumably because Warner is perfectly happy positively insists - that Cassius is rather a twit. So his morally-tortured musings on suicide become, rather than meditations on the honourable course, displays of self-consumed dippiness.

One may say that it doesn't help that Caesar says of Cassius that he is "lean and hungry" when we are already having difficulty in believing that plumply short SRB's Cassius could be in any kind of army except perhaps Dad's, or some outfit bringing light relief to an army operating where it ain't half hot, mum. All the same, the audience at the Barbican contained plenty of people rude enough silly enough to laugh out loud whenever the fat issue was mentioned on stage and that made one rally to him somewhat. SRB's Cassius could be clinically obese and still be incorruptibly, killingly ambitious in the sense that Caesar means.

Still, these things pile up to the point where one wonders whether Warner miscasts as she directs: wilfully to upset the bourgeois. In rather a similar way, the sit-com keeps intruding on the theatrical when we watch Ralph Fiennes' rendition of Mark Antony. It's a cracking part, to which Marlon Brando brought just the sinewy heaviness that made one believe that he might make a very bad enemy, whether commanding an army or in hand-to-hand butchery. Fiennes' strengths (I think them over-rated) don't lie in that direction, and in Warner's hands his yappy vaporisings reminded one irresistibly of Reggie Perrin, Leonard Rossiter's suburban hero in whom haplessness was an art-form.

Anton Lesser's donnish Brutus was not anything like as absurd: arguably it was the least unlikely of the important four performances. But it was polite rather than spirited: it didn't engage.

I feared the worst with Fiona Shaw's Portia, which began in a typically mannered way. But instead of ascending to a peak of noisy vein-straining (her trademark in Warner's hands), it acquired stature and dignity as it went along: it became womanly. John Shrapnel's Caesar was one tad too Tony Soprano to be quite right, but it had solid, engaging power. It conveyed exactly the stature the other men needed and didn't have. It was, dammit, properly manly. You could believe (as with Soprano) he was a man who knew that stoicism was a virtue, not a failure to be in touch with oneself.

I can't be sure that everyone spoke as loudly and clearly as they might (I was seated too close to judge well), but can say that almost all the speaking was blissfully intelligent. There was masses of insight as well as emoting in the acting. This means that the failures, if any, were Warner's.

By the interval, one suspected that Warner was not sufficiently interested in the constitutional issues the matters of polity - which make the play so much more than a psycho-drama. The conspirators were at least significantly motivated by horror that their old "Greek" rational, institutionalised, elitist state was being taken over by a tribal primitivism in which Caesar's superstition would match and utilise the mob's atavism. The assassins resorted to violence against a loved friend in their noble cause, and their tragedy turns out to be that they were insufficiently violent. They failed to "off" Mark Antony whilst they were at it, and they set up the circumstances under which men who really understood power would use more violence to abort the rational state and summon in exactly the Caesarian monarchy the conspirators had sought to reform.

So Cassius and Brutus do not so much come to regret killing Caesar as to regret not being more violent against more erstwhile and admired friends. (Does Blair now regret not more effectively hammering the career of Brown, back in the Granita forum, in the wake of the opportunity afforded by John Smith's death?) Their suicides are the price of inadequacies of leadership, not just personal despair. They had not been sufficiently Machiavellian to be noble.

All this is, in the second half's abandoned warehouse: the whole Barbican stage cleared to the very concrete. There were better stage effects than one has any right to expect. We lost the touches of wit the moments of wholly unexpected comedy which had peppered the first couple of hours. Unfortunately, we are clearly supposed to believe this was some modern middle eastern sort of war. The programme and stage are littered with images of those brave US soldiers who have liberated Iraq, which is hardly relevant to Shakespeare's depiction of a civil war in Julius Caesar. These are conceits comparisons - of no meaning. Irresistible this stunt may have been, a distraction it risked being and a vulgarity we are free to call it.

Do Warner's eccentricities take us anywhere very interesting, beyond scenes of sofa government against a backdrop of a skate-boarder's paradise and sweat in the desert? Strip out some charming touches and some fabulous effects, and one is left wondering whether these psychologically-ripe depictions of modern people and their modern preoccupations help us to see Shakespeare's interest in what the classical world says to northern Europeans in the 17th century, or our own. There are insights to be gained from turning Julius Caesar into a psychological drama amongst disturbed and weak people, and this is done superbly. But the result is far too lopsided. In short, Shakespeare wrote a much better play, one much truer to the problems ancient and modern leaders face, than the one she dazzles us with.

Richard D. North's Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence is published this week by the Social Affairs Unit.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement