Julius Caesar is a serious play about a serious man, and was quite possibly written for the rather serious occasion of the 1599 opening of the original Globe Theatre. Shakespeare had a stake in the new venue and his preoccupation with public opinion is reflected in a play in which the crowd is a key dramatic presence. As if to recreate the atmosphere the playwright sought, Dominic Dromgoole’s production has pre-show audience-baiting, music and cheering from a mob of men in tights, some of whom will play the roles of Rome’s all-important anonymous citizens.
Caesar is one of those easier-followed Shakespeares. The story concerns Cassius’ coercion of Brutus into a plot to kill Caesar in the name of republicanism, and the civil war which ensues when Mark Antony and Caesar’s adopted son Octavius take on the conspirators. It is not putting too much of a modern gloss on the source material to say that the play is basically interested in good and bad PR. Caesar contrives publicity stunts in which he refuses to accept a crown, or hands out money — so selfless is he. It fails horribly; he is stabbed and the scene that follows is a gripping battle between artful speechifiers (just as well, because the literal battles mostly happen off-stage, excepting the scuttlings of a few Roman tortoise formations).
The supercilious Brutus (Tom McKay) parades Caesar’s bloody corpse and puts it to the citizens — who periodically pop up amongst the Globe’s groundlings — that the murdered Caesar had got too big for Rome. Huge cheers. But then Mark Antony (Luke Thompson) steps up, ironically referring to the killers as ‘honourable men’ while subtly trash-talking them for being cold-blooded murderers. The citizens’ opinion is finally shifted in favour of Antony’s dignified let-slip-the-dogs-of-war outrage against Brutus et al.
Dromgoole’s production also zeroes in on the questionable self-justification practised by this pair. Reassuring himself that Caesar posed a threat to Rome’s liberty, Brutus portends to no less heroism than does vengeful Antony, while Caesar’s own slipperiness is made clear with a real knife-twist towards the end. All these men are possessed of enough silver tongue to turn a capricious crowd very dangerous indeed. When a mob mistakenly kills the poet Cinna, you’re again put in mind of an anxious Shakespeare — fretting over those first box office returns. Suffice to say his PR team ended up doing a better job than did Caesar’s.
Julius Caesar runs until 11 October at Shakespeare’s Globe, Bankside, London, SE1 9DT. Londonist saw this performance with a complimentary ticket.