Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

The 2011 Alabama Shakespeare Festival: Julius Caesar

Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

The 2011 Alabama Shakespeare Festival: Julius Caesar

Article excerpt

Caesar's assassination was a messy bit of business. With as much blood squirting as we might find in a 1980s slasher movie, it gave new meaning to Alabamas Crimson Tide. When the house lights were raised at intermission, I turned to my companion with eagerness and trepidation and asked, "Well, how do you like it so far?" It was my eleven-year-old daughter's first experience seeing a professional production of a Shakespearean play. An odd choice on my part, perhaps, to initiate her into the mysteries; we could have seen the Festival's production of Much Ado About Nothing instead. But since she had been studying classical civilization, mythology, and Latin during the school year, director Geoffrey Sherman's production of Julius Caesar at the 2011 Alabama Shakespeare Festival seemed like the suitable telos of the academic year. She raised her eyebrows, grinned, and replied, "It's good. Bur it's like watching Spanish TV. It's entertaining, bur I don't understand anything."

This was an honest, and unwittingly profound, response to a play whose principal action centers on the thorny, if not impossible, task of understanding. What, precisely, is the significance of Casca's seeing a "tempest dropping fire" from the heavens (1.3.10), or men "all in fire" walking the streets (25)? (1) What about the lack of a heart found in Caesar's sacrificial offering (2.2.39-41)? Do these signs indicate the favor or displeasure of the gods, and toward whom? Is Caesar to be feared for what he is? What is he? Cassius enviously views him as the "Colossus" that "bestride[s] the narrow world" (1.2.135-36) at everyone else's expense. Is Caesar to be feared for what he might become? Brutus confesses him not to be a tyrant, for "to speak truth of Caesar, / I have not known when his affections swayed / More than his reason" (2.1.19-21). But are we then to consent to his fears over Caesar's ambitions, when crowning him "might change his nature" (13)? Do we believe Calpurnia's ominous interpretation of her dream of Caesar's statue running with blood while Romans bathe their hands in it (2.2.78-82)? Or do we believe the interpretation of the conspirator Decius Brutus, whose quick thinking renders these details as Caesar's nourishing legacy to Rome (83-90)? The action of the play indicates that both interpretations of the statue appear to be true, bearing out Cicero's warning that "men may construe things after their own fashion" (1.3.34)--a statement driven home in Cassius's breast by his own sword when his friend Titinius laments, "Alas, thou hast misconstrued everything" (5.3.84).

Geoffrey Sherman's period production, with authentic costuming richly designed by Elizabeth Novak, managed these ambiguities well. Before the play began, the audience was instructed to participate in the role of the fickle Roman mob at crucial scenes when stirred and prompted to echo the actors stationed in the aisles. Shouting "Caesar! Caesar!" while trumpets sound in the background, we hail Rodney Clark's dignified Caesar at his entrance (1.2) as he strides with gravitas across the stage dressed in regal red and gold; after the assassination, we as the angry mob demand satisfaction from the conspirators (3.2.1); swayed by rhetoric, we chant "Live, Brutus, live, live!" (3.2.48) to a Brutus portrayed by Stephen Paul Johnson in a dynamic performance that earns every bit of Marc Antony's praise at the close of the play (5.5.68); and we shout fervent cries of revenge and mutiny (3.2.205, 232) when the charismatic Peter Simon Hilton, as Antony, delicately removes the ripped, crimson-stained toga covering Caesar's body or teases us with the contents of Caesar's will. The front of his tunic is as bloody as Caesar's toga, indicating that he has perhaps been embracing his fallen friend. In tears, he paces the stage as well as the aisles of the theatre and holds Caesar's toga before the gaze of various audience members who examine "the most unkindest cut of all" (3.2.184). …

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