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Kenneth Ransom as Julius Caesar. Image: Prudence Upton

Cheat sheet:
Julius Caesar

Shakespeare's political thriller parallels
our world more than we realise

Bell Shakespeare

Read the full guide: At A Glance from Bell Shakespeare
Get tickets to Julius Caesar in the Playhouse, closes Sunday 25 November

Speed read: 
A quick flick through Julius Caesar
Andy McLean

When Julius Caesar returns to Rome, triumphant from war with Pompey’s sons, senior Romans are royally riled. Rome is a republic and the senators fear Caesar holds too much power. So, Cassius and co plan to murder Caesar. Cassius convinces a reluctant Brutus to join the fray, though Brutus draws the line at killing Mark Antony too. Meanwhile Caesar ignores the pleas of his wife and the warning of a soothsayer (“Beware the Ides of March?” It’s all Greek to Caesar), and he goes to the Capitol where he is stabbed to death. Brutus tries to justify the assassination to the good people of Rome, but it’s Mark Antony’s eulogising of Caesar that really speaks to the masses. The conspirators are quickly convicted in the court of public opinion, and riots break out in the city. From there it’s a slippery slope towards civil war. Mark Antony and Caesar’s appointed heir, Octavius, lead an army against the conspirators and, if you have tears, prepare to shed them now. Because conspirators Cassius and Brutus commit suicide rather than be captured.

Sara Zwangobani as Mark Antony, Emily Havea as Octavius. Image: Prudence Upton
Sara Zwangobani as Mark Antony, Emily Havea as Octavius. Image: Prudence Upton
Kenneth Ransom as Julius Caesar. Image: Prudence Upton
Kenneth Ransom as Julius Caesar. Image: Prudence Upton

Was Shakespeare a soothsayer?

Watching Julius Caesar on stage today, it’s tempting to wonder whether William Shakespeare shared the same clairvoyant powers as the Soothsayer in his play. The issues Shakespeare explores are uncannily similar to those we face in modern society. Debate continues in Australia about whether or not to form a republic in place of an unelected monarch. And Australians have recently witnessed two Prime Ministers toppled by political factions and former allies. But that’s just for starters. Fake news and alternative facts are used in Julius Caesar to deceive Brutus when an anonymous note is thrown through his window and Mark Antony gives the Roman masses a vivid description of Caesar’s murder—despite not actually having witnessed it. (Can we even be sure that Caesar truly wrote the generous “will” that Antony uses to sway the crowd?) The play also raises questions about the rights and wrongs of preemptive violence (when is it acceptable to strike first against a potential aggressor?) and the conspirators cast doubts about Caesar’s leadership credentials in light of his age and failing health (a tactic employed by both sides in the 2016 US presidential election).

The cast of Bell Shakespeare in Julius Caesar. Image: Prudence Upton
The cast of Bell Shakespeare in Julius Caesar. Image: Prudence Upton

From the director:
James Evans

Shakespeare was obsessed with leadership. In play after play he scrutinised failed leaders and challenged beloved ones. This could have been dangerous, and Shakespeare seems to have walked a fine line politically, thriving at a time when less-careful artists were caught up in the machinery of the Elizabethan police state. His plays were set in Ancient Rome, Medieval Britain, exotic Venice, mythical lands, but he was always examining his own society—a London emerging from the Middle Ages and on the brink of 'modernity'. It is these arms-length settings that have allowed the plays to speak urgently to every new generation.

In Julius Caesar—written at about the halfway point of his career—Shakespeare delivers a ruthlessly efficient exploration of politics and power. The language of the play is direct and explosive: mob violence erupts, relationships fracture, and the republic crumbles, all through the power of the spoken word.

Sara Zwangobani as Mark Antony. Image: Prudence Upton
Sara Zwangobani as Mark Antony. Image: Prudence Upton

Brutus justifies the decision to kill his friend by literally commanding himself, out loud, to 'prevent' the hypothetical rise of Caesar. He instructs himself to ‘fashion’ the argument against Caesar, ‘think’ Caesar an unhatched snake and, finally, to ‘kill him in the shell’. Brutus shapes his own thoughts with spoken language, which is what Shakespeare asks of us.

As a director, I am not interested in a conclusive interpretation of Julius Caesar. I am not interested in spoon-feeding metaphor to the audience (Caesar = Hitler/Ceaușescu/Trump etc.). I am much more interested in exploring the ambiguities woven throughout this play. Just when you think you know a character, Shakespeare shows you another side of them. Ambiguity is Shakespeare's portal to the infinite. By asking more questions than he answers, he demands that we step up as an audience, no longer passive receivers of meaning, but active creators of it.

Julius Caesar was probably first performed in 1599, at the brand new Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames. Having just overseen the construction of the building, Shakespeare was in a metatheatrical mood. "All the world's a stage", a common metaphor at the time, was enshrined by Shakespeare in another 1599 play, As You Like It, and will forever be associated with his work.

In Julius Caesar, the conspirators know they are creating history. Immediately after the murder of Caesar, Cassius says:

“How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown?”

Cassius imagines himself immortalised as a saviour of Rome, presumably played by Chris Hemsworth in the movie. Of course, Shakespeare doesn't allow Cassius to bask in victory. The assassination occurs at the midpoint of the play. and Shakespeare is more interested in the fallout than in the act itself. The pre-emptive strike against Caesar creates a power vacuum that sets the cause of Roman democracy back by over a thousand years.

A culture of violence consumes Shakespeare's Rome: it engulfs people at every level of society. Immediately after Mark Antony turns the mob against the conspirators, Shakespeare introduces a new character, an artist—Cinna the Poet. He is surrounded by the mob, who think he is Cinna the conspirator. When they find out he has nothing to do with the conspiracy, they decide to kill him anyway:

“Tear him for his bad verses.”

When leaders use language that provokes or normalises violence, a dark, collective urge is unleashed. And the artist is always the first target.

Our production has a steely, industrial design aesthetic. It is contemporary, but not weighed down by modern references—no iPhones or handguns on stage. My particular interest is in dystopias—especially the way in which yesterday's dystopia becomes today's normality. Read today's headlines. Then imagine reading those same headlines in 2015. It would be unfathomable. And yet here we are, in a new reality.

Julius Caesar is a jolt against complacency. It is a forceful warning against the creeping advance of tyranny, but also against using tyranny's tactics to achieve an ostensibly noble goal. I hope this production will spark debate among audiences: what has changed in the last 419 years? And with politics now debased beyond belief, where are we headed next?

Get tickets to Julius Caesar in the Playhouse, closes Sunday 25 November

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