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JC at election time


Went to see the Deborah Warner Julius Caesar at the Barbican on Election Night. I’ve never seen it staged before – infact, I’m not 100% sure I’ve ever read it. I have a vague memory of some school-annotated copy picked up at a bookstall, back when I was obsessively buying Penguin Shakespeares to have the complete set. I remember the big set speeches were laced with heavy pencil markings and Collins notes transcriptions. “Irony”, for example, underlined three times.

Anyway it came alive on stage. As it should. It’s so nice to go to a production where the verse isn’t rushed over like some embarassment – “Hmm, better speed through this till I get to a laugh”. Shakespeare productions – particularly British Shakespeare – can be unspeakably bad, all jolly-hockey-sticks and pantomime and – heavens forfend – no seriousness. That seems to be the English disease: whatever you do, don’t be pretentious. Don’t really say anything too profound. Especially in this Blair-lite political ethos. Where a whole campaign was fought on dogwhistles and a smeary racist Immigration card. Whatever happens: don’t talk about economy, public services, ethics.

Of course, Julius Caesar, talks about big things all the time. And it’s a great production. Even though it clocks in at about 3 hours, I didn’t flag once. Though my buttockbones were aching by the end. Simon Russel Beal is a fantastic verse speaker – he makes every line sound like it was carved out of conversation. Each word, the perfect fruit hanging off the breath. Raph Fiennes was puppy-like and wonderful as Mark Anthony. (Though distressingly like Leonard Rossiter at times). I wasn’t so keen on Anton Lesser. He’s a bit shouty and hoarse – which is a shame since it really is Brutus’s play. But I loved the huge staging – with literally hundreds of extras for the crowd scenes and the sort of stark chaotic stage I grew to love in Berlin. There’s a moment when a skip-load of domestic debris falls from the flies after a battle scene which was pure Castorf or Pina Bausch.

But my real admiration was for Shakespeare. I was shocked and amused a couple of days ago to hear Gary slag off Shakespeare as a colossal bore with no resonance for him at all. To me, it seems fatuous to imagine that all art should have a direct resonance to our personal lives. I’m never going to be a Scottish Thane who kills a King and talks with witches. Nor am I likely to sleep inadvertently with my mother and put out my eyes. But standing by and experiencing something other than our personal lives, seems to me the very essence of good art.

Julius Caesar is a political play. It’s about the ethics of citizenship and action within a political world. Is it right to kill a statesman who has become a tyrannt? Or who might become one? Or to be more contemporary: is it right to depose a tyrannical ruler who has WMDs? Or might have them? The parallel with the Iraq war is made evident in Warner’s production. But when Caesar first enters in a swarm of sunglassed security men and smart suits, it’s not Saddam I thought of but the hubristic Tony Blair. And it was that sliding identification that most impressed me. Of course, Shakespeare was writing unconcerned with Iraq or the 2005 Election, but what is fascinatingly fresh about him is that he never sides. He never polarizes. In the age of “you’re either with us or against us”, he gives us an endlessly subtle picture of the mirrors and simultaneities of human endeavour. Here more perhaps than in other plays.

In Macbeth, although one identifies with Macbeth, the moral trajectory of his decline is never in doubt. Similarly in Othello, our emotional compass is pretty firmly set towards Desdemona and the Moor’s suffering. Here in Julius Caesar however, we can never rest morally or emotionally on any of the three main protagonists. Is Cassius a bad man? Is Brutus a noble one? Is Mark-Anthony shallow? None of them can be reduced. And at different times in the play we sympathize with all of them. And the end of the play – which seems so problematic to modern audiences – is problematic precisely because it doesn’ t allow us to wrap things up nicely. Brutus and Cassius are dead but Mark Anthony is left with a weedy counterfeit Caesar and he mourns his nobler enemy : This was a man.

That sort of psychological maturity – letting everyone co-exist and honouring all with attention but not with judgement – is Shakespeare’s greatest asset. But personally, I also love the artifice of his stagecraft. I love being sat infront of an artificial contraption – a play – which unwinds in front of my eyes for a few hours and creates a little hologram of another world. I went to see A Winters Tale 2 weeks ago with Simon and although it was much less satisfying production, the extreme – almost torturous – artifice of that play pleased me even more. The mysterious implacable madness of Leontes, the weird juxtapositon of that with the pastoral idyll of Florizel and Perdita, the extreme suspension of disbelief needed to pull off the Statue scene. The arbitrariness of late Shakespeare appeals to my love of the incommensurate, the awkward. It was just a shame so much of the verse in that production was hidden under hammery.

It reminds me of the story of my Director of Studies at Cambridge, JH Prynne , a fiercely intellectual poet and my academic hero back then. He went to see a student production of The Tempest in a church in East Anglia. (I can’t think why he went since he had ferociously exacting standards of performance. Perhaps because he also a great deal of kindness to his students.) Anyway, he went and sat through the whole thing and came out thinking it was the best production he’d ever seen. On further reflection, he realised the reason it had been so great was because, sitting at the back of the church, he’d actually been unable to hear any of the actors in the terrible accoustic and so had run through the entire play’s poetry in his head.

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