William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar tells of the events leading to and following the assassination of Rome’s would be emperor. It begins with Caesar’s victory over his rival Pompei, showing how adored he is by the masses, and it ends in all out war between his betrayers and friends to decide who will succeed him.
Julius Caesar is something of an odd play. It’s sort of like staccato storytelling with an abrupt narrative that leaves scenes feeling detached from each other rather than having a natural dramatic flow. Perhaps it’s because we’re thrust so far into what could be the middle (or end) of a story that the title implies should be about Julius Caesar when it’s the other characters (Brutus/Marc Antony/et al) who drive the story forward. And because he is such an notable and renowned character, it’s hard to deny him as the focal point of the few scenes he’s in before dying two thirds through act one. On the other hand, when you consider the dialogue and the key speeches, Julius Caesar is a brilliant piece of writing. Mark Antony’s speech at the end of act one is one of the most powerful pieces of writing I can think of.
As the play itself has plusses and minuses, so does the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival’s production of it. To really hit and overcome some of the text’s shortcomings, it relies on the characters presenting as larger than life. Bombastic and full of bravado. Julius Caesar has such limited time on stage that we need to feel how big and important he is quickly. Mark Antony has a speech that can leave audiences stunned. Here, it didn’t get up to a level where it gripped me. I simply wasn’t feeling it. The second act corrected this somewhat thanks to the introduction of Michael Man’s Octavius who brought the full grandiosity I’d hope for as well as the energy boost his force of personality breathes into Jonathan Purvis’ Mark Antony. Additionally, the central drama of Julius Caesar comes from Brutus’s duality (he loves Caesar, but he loves Rome more and believes Caesar is bad for Rome) yet I didn’t get a sense of the torment of his dilemma from Ash Knight’s performance.
On the plus side, the production brought some great staging and battles to fore. Julius Caesar’s second act return as a ghost who haunts Brutus was executed in a brilliant way to be both eerie and gloomily foreboding. It succeeded at heightening the second act drama considerably. The production also treats us to some cool Roman battle action with the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival dressing a dozen or more volunteers as Roman soldiers to play background in the big battles of the second act. This Roman chorus helps the production succeed at feeling like a bigger, broader world.
Ultimately, if you’re interested in some dandy speeches and hearing oft re-quoted lines in their original context, you’ll enjoy this just fine. But as a compelling drama? An interesting tragedy? It doesn’t quite reach the heights it needs to.
But that’s just my opinion and I would love to know what you think? Was I out to lunch? What did you think of Great Caesar’s Ghost? Join the discussion and let me know in the comments below.
Julius Caesar runs as part of the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival now through August 20th. Full info: stlawrenceshakespeare.ca