Julius Caesar, dir. Michiel de Regt. Performance: Orkater. Music: K.O. Brass! Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam, 2 December 2017.
Reviewed by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University).
Like many productions of Julius Caesar nowadays, Orkater’s staging transposed the action to the modern age. No togas, therefore, but modern dress, and modern instruments too: for this production replaced much of the dialogue by the sound of the jazzy brass instruments of former members of the Kyteman Orchestra, supplemented by percussion and electric guitars. Ominous wind instruments and drums set the overall mood of foreboding; a bluesy trumpet lamented the deaths of major characters; and heavy rock guitars incited the populace to war. In general, much of this production relied on musical and visual elements rather than the text as such.
The stage design, too, was crucial to the effect of the performance. The stage was dominated by a long white staircase, classically symmetrical, at the top of which there was a door opening. The backdrop looked dirty white or even black, depending on the lighting. White, black, and greyish colours predominated, but when the civil war began, the staircase was dyed red by the stage blood running down like a mountain stream. Also the characters’ relative position on the stairs was important, in suggesting their place in the hierarchy or their tactical or moral advantage, as when Antony startled the conspirators seconds after the assassination, by appearing above them and descending the stairs; even though he was alone, his position lent him a threatening appearance.
In this production, everything was show business, even politics. Caesar looked more like a vain film star than like a soldier or a traditional statesman, in his white, fluffy faux fur overcoat worn over his naked torso; his wife Calpurnia was dressed as a glamorous tv-personality, showing off her legs while descending the staircase, now suggesting the set of a television game show.
Caesar made his first appearance in a kind of prologue to the play, perhaps a visualisation of his nightmare. He emerged from the mist that enveloped the stage amidst ominous sounds, and addressed the audience in an incomprehensible babble supposed to sound like Italian, obviously very fond of the impression he believed he was making. His demeanour was far from the dignity one would expect from a man who aspires to become a king. Around him, mysterious figures appeared, dressed like medieval monks in dark mantles with hoods that completely shadowed their faces. One by one, these embraced Caesar, in what at first appeared to be a comradely fashion; but Caesar lost some of his strength with each embrace, until he fell to the floor, seemingly dead. In earlier versions of the production, each of the hooded figures had apparently stabbed a dagger in his back—and not surprisingly, their garb turned out to be the cloak in which the conspirators disguised themselves later in the play. In this final version, however, the daggers had been omitted, so that it seemed that the very embrace itself had become the lethal weapon. Later acts of violence, such as the real assassination foreshadowed by this prologue, also dispensed with actual weapons. There, the conspirators surrounded Caesar, with his naked torso, and lifted him up in poses recalling the iconography of Christ’s deposition from the cross, until he finally collapsed, downstage.
Brutus was dressed in a business suit, but one of his sleeves was missing, so that he had two asymmetrical sides to him, suggesting his duplicity. Another unusual effect was obtained by having Lucius, Brutus’s boy-servant, played as a spastic. Brutus’s ordering him to answer the door or to fetch him something thereby became tragicomic, as we witnessed Lucius servilely doing his master’s bidding with the utmost trouble, while Brutus, for all his idealism, seemed totally oblivious to what he was demanding from his loyal servant; one sign among many of his blindness to the practical consequences of his actions. In the assassination scene, the dying Caesar appeared to copy some of Lucius’s spastic movements, as he died slowly, twitching and even laughing.
Less clear was the reason for casting a bearded man as Brutus’s wife Portia. As he was wearing a kind of apron with feminine forms, this seemed merely farcical. Perhaps there was a practical casting problem as only one actress was available, who had to appear again as Calpurnia in the following scene, as a feminine yet dominant woman, who shouted at Caesar to make him do her bidding.
The aftermath of the assassination was, as usual, the centre piece of this production. Brutus here came across as particularly politically naïve, as he allowed Antony to interrupt his speech, carrying Caesar’s body down the staircase and laying him down close to the audience, before launching into his own, highly emotional rhetoric. Rather than exiting at this point, Brutus just stood by, sheepishly, while the other conspirators were waiting for a sign from him to stop Antony; as none was forthcoming, they remained until Antony’s accusations became explicitly accusatory, and he showed populace the wound supposedly made by Brutus, “the most unkindest cut of all” (3.2.177).
Left alone on stage, Mark Antony took Caesar’s body on his lap, in a pietà-like gesture, showing him to the audience which doubled as the Roman populace; and when he had finished, he pulled on Caesar’s coat himself and launched into a wild guitar solo, at the top of the stairs. At this, Caesar arose, suggesting the revival of his spirit; and blood started to flow down the staircase, while Antony was joined by Octavius, dressed in a very similar coat and playing just such a rock guitar. From then on, Caesar became the narrator, guiding us through the confusing events of the civil war. The ensuing chaos only came to an end when Brutus, too, was embraced, from behind, by Caesar’s ghost. As the rhythm of the percussion slowed down and stopped, Brutus lay dead. Antony praised his memory as “the noblest Roman of them all,” a trumpet played a lament; and at the top of the staircase we once again saw Octavius and Antony, next to each other, as today’s winners.