The National Theatre’s Julius Caesar, screened in cinemas around Ireland on March 22nd, opened with the usual live screening announcements. Microphone in hand, the announcer informed us of the running time, advertised upcoming NT events, and cautioned us about the show’s use of strobe lighting. Rather than being bland or routine however, these pronouncements were presented in the manner of a roving reporter caught in the middle of Caesar’s raucous political rally. Standing amongst the audience, and almost drowned out by the rock band playing in the background, the announcer even signed off by declaring that she was “off to join the rabble. Hail Caesar!” With the camera moving amongst the audience, the action seemed immediate and pointedly familiar. From the get go then, this production of Julius Caesar was captivating and creative.
The early scenes smoothly introduced the main players. A triumphant Caesar entered surrounded by flags and banners espousing his campaign slogan “Do this!”. Sporting a leather jacket and baseball cap, and assuredly pressing the flesh, Caesar resembled the American presidential candidates we’ve seen on our screen in recent years. Wearing a “Do this!” t-shirt, Marc Antony was clearly in Caesar’s camp and had a strong filial bond with the elder statesman. Brutus, ever the intellectual, signed copies of his book, worked late in his study, and emphasised his thoughts on tyranny by gesticulating with his spectacles.
As strong as these performances were, by David Calder, David Morrissey, and Ben Whishaw respectively, Michelle Fairley’s Cassius was an absolute revelation. Fairley will be familiar to many as Catelyn Stark in Game of Thrones, and her performance as Cassius was no less compelling and formidable. On several occasions, Cassius’ scenes were the stand out moments of the production. The gender switch enabled Caesar’s complaints about Cassius in 1.2 to assume new significance. Cassius rolled her eyes as Caesar, for the umpteenth time we imagine, commented openly on her appearance and qualities, begging to have “men about me that are fat” rather than slim women who think too much and are hungry for freedom. Meeting the sardonic Casca, played by Adjoa Andoh, the conspiring pair seemed to channel both the femme fatales and hard-bitten heroes of film noir to produce a scene heavy with gloom and menace. When Cassius and Brutus squabbled after the assassination, they recalled the Macbeths, dismayed at the turn of events and unable to wash the blood from their hands. (In the squalor of their ruined shelter, Brutus still found time to apply some hand-sanitiser!) In her suicide, Cassius was as proud, defiant, and pitiable as Cleopatra in her death.
As Brutus ascended the stage of the Forum to explain the conspirators’ actions, it seemed his work would be cut out for him. Citizens – co-opted members of the audience and stagehands – waved posters of Caesar and shouted their displeasure. Gradually though, as Brutus’ speech continued, the posters were lowered as if the protesting citizens were won over or, more likely, the audience was simply tired holding the images aloft. Whereas Brutus had gripped his microphone like a TV evangelist, Antony quickly discarded it, preferring to speak his eulogy directly to the audience. In his pose as a simple man reluctantly moved to defend Caesar, Antony was wholly convincing. Only later, when he was pleased at the citizens’ planned “mischief” and when he swaggered in his combat gear with Octavius, did Antony suddenly seem two-faced. With deafening gunfire, the debris of urban warfare, and the uniforms and weapons of modern armies, the production’s battle scenes recalled those of Fiennes’ Coriolanus (2011). These action scenes came to a swift end as Antony and Octavius discovered the bodies of Cassius and Brutus. With victory secured, Octavius showed himself to be every inch the arrogant commander. Standing at the stage’s highest point, he stripped off some of his combat gear and, Nixon-like, gave peace signs to his people as celebratory balloons fell. The production ended as it began, with a PR exercise by a savvy politician and Rome’s fate standing on shaky ground.
It was evident that the NT Julius Caesar gripped the theatre and the cinema audience from beginning to end. With superb performances from the main players, supporting cast, and the co-opted audience members (volunteers? victims?) and with a running time of just over 2 hours, this is a pacey and timely production certain to entertain.
There will be encore screenings of the National Theatre’s Julius Caesar at:
Light House Cinema, Dublin, on Tuesday 27 March.
Cork Opera House on Wednesday 28 March.
For tickets here and in other locations, see the NT Live website here.