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April 22, 2005

Shakespeare as Agit-Prop: Julius Caesar at the Barbican

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

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

For another, longer perspective on this production, it is also reviewed for the Social Affairs Unit by Richard D. North.

The first impact of a play, these days, comes from the programme, and for Deborah Warner's Julius Caesar, that impact is dire. The theme is the Iraq war, along with a certain amount of random hits at the United States. Instead of the glory that was Rome, we have pockmarked Baghdad. One of Shakespeare's most subtle speeches about the character of deliberation –

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim...
is paired with a goofy picture of George W. Bush in combat uniform. Aha! The play is there to tell us that the Iraq war is "a dreadful thing"! This crass ploy of taking a few words of Shakespeare and attaching them to the current thoughts of Deborah Warner and her company runs right through. Brutus's
You have done that you should be sorry for
is juxtaposed with an American soldier.

One can only ask: what can possibly be going on here? When, dear reader, did you last wonder what to think about current events, and decide that you must go to the theatre folk to understand what it's all about? If one seeks enlightenment about the current Middle Eastern policies of the British and American governments, one might consult historians and political scientists, and perhaps see the issues argued out in some depth by politicians. Since when did anyone get the idea that political wisdom is to be acquired from sitting at the feet of Jane Fonda or the Redgraves? They live amid fantasies and fictions, and their minds can hardly help sliding towards melodrama and the techniques of posturing. It's bad enough when the complexity of our policy towards Africa is hijacked by pop singers, but having to listen to the witterings of thespians on areas outside the aesthetic is intolerable. She is clearly a talented director, but politically speaking, Deborah Warner is a birdbrain, and there is no possible reason for supporting this kind of thing by public subsidy. Hitchcock got it right about actors.

Yes, yes, Mrs Lincoln, but how about the play?

The first thing to say is that the crowd (100+) is the star, and excitement mounts as they jig around, shout and convey uncontrollable frenzy. It has the vitality of a musical without the music. A sexy citizeness is foregrounded all the way through, behaving as if in the throes of a St. Vitus Dance, and forever drawing attention to herself – absurd and irritating, but quite fun in a distracted sort of way.

The second thing to say is that we are being treated to a heavyweight cast and it is never anything less than professional. They speak well, apart from a bit of ranting in the Brutus/Cassius quarrel scene in the fourth act. I did not find them altogether convincing, because although they had certainly been coherently directed, they lacked the innerness you expect from those magnificent lines. This may improve, since the production has yet to settle down. Simon Russell Beale was playing Cassius against type, and Anton Lesser did not convey the sense of moral star quality that would have made sense of the fatally dominant role Brutus plays in the conspiracy. The whole theme of a man with a head full of ideals, out of his depth in politics, was lost amid bids for contemporary relevance. Ralph Fiennes comes off best as Mark Antony. Fiona Shaw as Portia has one marvellous scene but it seems to come out of a quite different play. The first half can hardly be anything else but gripping, the second half is full of all that Iraq war décor and is a bit of a bore, but that is partly Shakespeare's fault. Altogether, the minimal thing one can say about this Julius Caesar is that it's a jolly good show with a lot going for it.

And that brings one back to the mentality behind it. Some pre-review publicity by Benendict Nightingale in The Times consisted of an interview with the three main actors and gave us the kind of public relations flim-flam hard to avoid these days:

All three men admire Warner for her determination to rethink tradition, challenge actors with unpredictable questions and change preconceptions about classic plays.
Every current cliché, as Churchill might have said, except God is love. Well, actors had better admire their directors, but it would have been infinitely better if they had insisted on togas. Julius Caesar is diminished in modern dress. Certainly this one was.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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