The programme notes to the current production of this play drew my attention to two separate ideas: James Shapiro remarks on the resonances between the Roman politics portrayed in the play and Shakespeare’s own contemporary societal concerns, and Jonathan Stamp comments on the brutality of Caesar’s Rome. Stamp is a historian who acted as an advisor on the BBC/HBO series Rome. This two-part series portrayed a city and a historical period that were far removed from the classical ideology that we imagine nowadays. There may have been senators ruling Rome, but there was also an abundance of violence in a city where the rulers were juxtaposed against the proletariat. Lucy Bailey, the director of this production, professes to being influenced by the violence and brutality of the television series. But she also foregrounds the parallels drawn by (by Shapiro) in his book 1599 between Shakespeare’s Rome and the England of the dramatist’s own time.
The current RSC version of the play reminds us of these ideas, but it also reinforces the fact that Caesar’s Rome was a pre-Christian society that was heavily influenced by superstition and augury. Careful attention is paid to the unnatural phenomena that occur before the assassination of the city’s ruler. Before we even learn of Calphurnia’s (Noma Dumezweni) ominous dream, we hear the noises she describes. Nature seems to be in turmoil in a prediction of the war that will exist between Mark Antony (Darrell D’Silva) and Octavius (Joseph Arkley) in their conflict with Brutus (Sam Troughton) and Cassius (John Mackay). The Soothsayer has already warned Caesar to ‘Beware the Ides of March’ and Calphurnia has correctly interpreted the warnings in her dream (related by her husband) in which his statue ‘Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts, / Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans / Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it.’ Even the augurers advise against Caesar leaving his home but he pays them no regard, especially when informed that the Senate wish to reward him with a crown. Shakespeare equivocates: the conspirators believe that Caesar wishes to be crowned, but Antony rhetorically disputes this. Should we take the part of the conspirators or should we side with Antony?
The superstitious tropes are extended into the appearance of Caesar’s ghost to Brutus near Sardis, but this production also brings the spectre back again to haunt Brutus’s suicide. When he runs onto Strato’s (Larrington Walker) sword, Caesar walks between them, and it is his sword that strikes the fatal blow. The older man’s spirit is now able to rest after the death of his murderer; Caesar has become the ghost in a revenge tragedy.
The current RSC Romeo and Juliet is heavily imbued with fire, but this Julius Caesar is dowsed with generous doses of blood. The play opens against a projected backdrop of the statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf against a red background, reminding us that the twins fought to the death for the leadership of Rome. Before the play’s first scene, we are treated to the sight of two men wrestling and, of course, Caesar’s assassination is accompanied by the necessary amount of blood required for the conspirators to wash their hands in his wounds. They may have argued against butchery and in favour of carving him ‘as a dish fit for the gods’, but to spectators in a theatre he always appears to have been butchered. Shakespeare was extremely fond of his contradictions.
Bailey makes the play’s contradictions even more apparent. Greg Hicks’s Caesar is a lean and sinewy man, whilst his avenger is on the beefy, overweight side, rather like a rugby player who has knocked back too many pints. This Mark Antony will definitely turn into the decadent man who will be undone by his affair with Cleopatra. Octavius, on the other hand, is another slim, fit young man, who will be worthy to inherit the leadership of Rome.
The current production moves at a pace, but above all it reminds us that the Rome of 2000 years ago was not a city of classically correct marble buildings, inhabited by orating senators in flowing togas; rather it was like any modern city where mobs try to control mobs and the citizens (and plebeians) are politically divided.