First published on The Public Reviews website.
What constitutes a hero? Is it the man who fashions an extensive empire, defeating all in his path, but brings despotic rule to his own people who love him nonetheless, or the man who kills his friend, a supposed tyrant, for the sake of personal honour and social freedom? This dilemma is at the heart of the Globe’s exciting new version of Julius Caesar, examining whether individuals are at the mercy of fate or should accept responsibility for complying in their own subjugation.
Do we then sympathise with Caesar, who has made Rome great before being murdered in the most brutal fashion by those he trusted, or with Brutus, somewhat unwittingly coerced into this act by those with lesser motives, but which he thinks will protect the essential democracy of the state? Yet, even noble deeds have powerful consequences and the conspirators soon discover they have no control over the events they unleash, nor over the perception of those actions. With an angry mob to abate, the murder of Caesar leads to war with consequences that threaten the very Republic they hoped to defend.
At the heart of the play is Brutus, played by Tom McKay, whose decision to join the plot against his former friend and the effect this has on his honour and conscience, drive the action forward. McKay’s Brutus is a somewhat cold figure, who speaks often of his principles but seems almost unmoved by the events around him. The early scenes where Brutus wrestles with his conscience are perhaps the weakest, but McKay is excellent in the second half, bringing out the character’s greater sense of purpose at war, tempered with moments of regret and a sad realisation of how his actions have failed the Republic.
His counterpoint is Cassius, a fiery zealot who is the engineer of Caesar’s downfall, believing whole- heartedly in his right to topple the tyrant. Anthony Howell’s Cassius dominates his scenes, whether inspiring the plotters with diatribes on injustice or in his more philosophical moments discussing the purpose of fate. Together their friendship is very believable, nicely anchoring the events that ensue, and encouraging you to question whether Brutus killed for Rome or for Cassius.
Interestingly, Caesar scarcely appears in the play and George Irving gives him an unusual other worldly quality. He’s detached; barely human it seems, like the statue of Colossus he’s compared to and his softly spoken voice seems at odds with the image of the violent conqueror. Cleverly, this production regularly questions whether Caesar deserved to die and your sympathies are not allowed to rest on any one side.
Another man out to defend his friend is Mark Anthony, initially bowing to the conspirators so that he can later attack them. Luke Thompson brilliant conveys quite a wide-ranging part – Anthony on the surface is a carousing lout, albeit a charming one, but Caesar’s murder inspires grief then vengeance. The moment Anthony addresses Caesar’s corpse with the speech beginning: ‘Oh pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth that I am meek and gentle with these butchers’, is one of the best in the production, which Thompson builds from inconsolable grief to raging curses. The incredible scene where Anthony and Brutus address the mob is one of the finest rhetorical duels ever written and is perfectly done here with Thompson’s Anthony effortlessly and subversively inciting the mob to take revenge.
The Globe has created a hybrid Renaissance-ancient Roman world in both the design and staging of this production, which mostly works quite well. The 17th-Century costumes are fine for the conspiracy-period and war, but look a little strange with togas across the top for the Senate. It’s not really clear why they went for this design and it doesn’t always work, especially when the text clearly references battles and places. The musical interludes work very well and having a recurring trio of singers signal every death was a nice device.
Julius Caesar is not performed as often as you might expect, despite having one of the best plots and some of the most beautiful language that Shakespeare ever wrote, so see it while you can. The Globe’s production is gripping and exciting, gathering considerable momentum after the slaying in the Senate, and forcing your to question the motives of all involved. Debates of liberty and democracy aside, at its heart this is a play about friendships and the things men will do in support of one another. Whether anyone ends up a hero is debatable, but the high quality performances in this production will make it difficult to pick a side.
Julius Caesar is at the Globe until 11 October with standing tickets starting at £5.