Julius Caesar (Bell Shakespeare Company)

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Peter Craven Monday, 23 July 2018
Published in ABR Arts
Julius Caesar, first performed in 1599, dates from the period when Shakespeare was leading up to Hamlet, and its central figure Brutus, the conscientious assassin, is a bit of a rough draft for the introspective side of the Prince of Denmark, whereas Richard II, four years earlier, had been for his actorishness. The play is often first encountered in middle high school. It is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays: not only does it have the spectacular central event of the onstage killing of Caesar (‘Et tu, Brute’ and all that), but it contains some of the greatest pieces of rhetoric Shakespeare ever wrote. Mark Antony’s ‘Friends, Romans and countrymen, lend me your ears’ (the funeral oration that turns into rabble-rousing) is just the most famous example.

If Shakespeare had written nothing but Julius Caesar, he would still be the greatest of all the recreators of the glory of Rome and that intensity of restraint – so much fire, so much ice – that you get in Cicero’s speeches (‘O tempora. O mores!’), which is given an apparitional power in Cassius’s speech seducing Brutus to sedition. ‘Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs and peep about / To find ourselves dishonorable graves.’ Which is one reason why T.S. Eliot said Shakespeare got more history out of Plutarch than someone else would have got out of the British Museum.

Julius Caesar is kicked on tremendously by the fact that these speeches, which have such grandeur in themselves, also further the action, and that action results in civil war, so that politics is brought alive by its transfiguration into drama of the most stirring sword-and-sandals variety.

All you need for Julius Caesar are three, preferably four, leading men, drawn from the best pool available to you. In Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1953 film, which tends to be the yardstick, we have James Mason as Brutus, John Gielgud as Cassius, and the young Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, fresh from A Streetcar Named Desire and proving what a staggering classical actor he would have been if he’d stuck to Shakespeare. The Caesar is the veteran American actor Louis Calhern, and his wife Calpurnia is played by Greer Garson, while Portia, Brutus’s beloved, is Deborah Kerr.

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Published in ABR Arts
Peter Craven

Peter Craven

Peter Craven is one of Australia's best-known literary and culture critics. He writes regularly for both the Fairfax and Murdoch press about literature, film, television, and theatre.

Comments (2)

  • Leave a comment

    Like a first rehearsal of an amateur dramatics society.
    Mumbling actors with no voice projection often turned away from the audience. We left at half time.

    Friday, 17 August 2018 09:46 posted by Chris James
  • Leave a comment

    This was a most disappointing production of a Shakespeare play. I felt I wasted my money on the ticket I bought. A truly awful experience.

    Saturday, 28 July 2018 21:24 posted by Eira Parry

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