Julius Caesar, directed by Mirjam Koen, Het Zuidelijk Toneel, Stadsschouwburg Utrecht, the Netherlands, 25 March 2014.
Review by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University)
This modern dress production foregrounded the dangers of stirring up populist sentiments by skilled rhetoricians, and the disastrous consequences this might have, with a glance to the rise of populist politics in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. These themes were underlined by some remarkable casting and production choices. If Brutus is usually portrayed as considerably younger than Caesar, so that his decision to murder him has something of the oedipal to it, here he was a middle-aged man, like Caesar himself. Obviously driven by ideal motives, Brutus seemed like an elder statesman, well-meaning but rather naive about political realities. With his moral authority he overruled his more practical-minded fellow conspirators. Marc Antony and Octavius represented the younger generation of pragmatic politicians. The difference between them was highlighted in the forum scene. Brutus addressed the audience, which doubled as the Roman mob, from behind a microphone. In an addition to Shakespeare’s text, he was heckled by the soothsayer, who loudly protested against the murder. Brutus was taken aback, but after the man had been detained and led offstage, he repeated, somewhat illogically, that no one was offended. After him, Marc Antony took the stage, and at once put the microphone aside. He came forward, even moving into the auditorium. Quite cleverly, he played the populist card, pretending to be one of the people, united in mourning over their lost leader. His clever manipulation of his audience was one of the production’s highlights.
Other casting choices involved gender. Cassius was played by a woman, with long hair but dressed in trousers, and still identified as male in the text; here the gender change seemed to enhance Cassius’s persuasiveness. Caesar had a young male attendant, who brought him something to drink for breakfast and helped him dress. This then turned out to be Calpurnia, attempting to dissuade her husband from going to the senate on that day. As the gender role was not made clear by any physical signs here, this was slightly confusing. Perhaps it was intended to underline Caesar’s resemblance to the gay populist politician Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered in 2002.
Among the production’s more spectacular points was its use of percussion instruments. Apart from some regular cast members playing drums, this touring production always involved a local amateur band as well. Drum bands are a vital part of the Netherlands’ traditional popular culture. In the opening scene, a group of drummers, dressed in blue uniforms, sat down on the stage floor, having a relaxed chat with each other until the tribune tried to chase them away. They reacted calmly to this outsider, but were not unduly impressed by his authority. Following this scene, the drummers formed two groups playing a piece in counterpoint to each other. As they were all dressed alike, it seemed like a musical duel foreshadowing the civil war to come. As the performance went on, the drummers became increasingly aggressive. It was they who killed Cinna the poet with a salvo of their drums, dressed by now in multi-coloured balaclavas like paramilitary forces. When Cinna died, the corpse of Caesar, which had been left on stage, arose, suggesting the revival of Caesarism. He walked across the stage, still somewhat stiff from lying dead for so long, and was frequently seen in the wings in later scenes, keeping an eye on developments, and at last drinking a glass of wine with Octavius to celebrate their victory. The drum band played the epilogue, facing the audience front stage, with their sticks but without their drums. They soundlessly mimed playing their instruments, as an eerie comment on the play’s violence. What had begun as an innocent popular tradition had degenerated into something monstrous.
The stage was fairly bare at first, apart from a wheelie bin and some drums. In the centre lay a banner, which was raised when Caesar was offered the crown. It turned out to be a gigantic portrait of the strongman, which was hoisted up to the ceiling, then quickly disappeared from view, to suggest Caesar’s meteoric rise and early death. Instead, a structure was lowered above the stage which might be described as a three-dimensional grid, consisting of whitish poles with red ribbons. As the conspiracy against Caesar took shape, it was lowered ever farther, until it touched the ground when the civil war began. Now it served as a kind of maze from which Cinna was killed, and where ghosts (Caesar’s, and later also Portia’s) hid to observe the living. When Cassius died, part of the structure began to sway and collapsed; when Brutus died, the rest too, collapsed into ruins resembling those of the Twin Towers, symbolic of the utter destruction that had been brought upon Rome by civil strife.
The violence portrayed in this production was mostly stylised. There were no sword fights. The assassination was staged as Caesar slipping out of his overcoat, which was then savagely torn to pieces by the conspirators. The remnants lay on the stage floor until the end, as a reminder of the cause of the war. Cassius committed suicide with a small pocket knife, whereas Brutus’s death was represented by Strato sticking a sword into a heap of polystyrene foam. It was all the more startling when, after having lauded Brutus as the only one of the conspirators that had acted from noble motives, Marc Antony pulled out a pistol and shot an unsuspecting Casca—one of the other conspirators—dead.
A final remarkable detail was the rendering of the dialogue between Brutus and Portia in 2.1 as a telephone conversation. We only heard her arguing, and had to reconstruct Brutus’s answers from that. As Portia was pregnant (or was it the actress who just happened to be pregnant?), her situation looked all the more precarious. Then it seemed as if Brutus had hung up on her, but he appeared onstage a few seconds later, to make up with her and embrace her. This was a rare moment of humanity in a rather stark rendering of Shakespeare’s play as a study in man’s dark potentiality.