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Blood and Honor: 'Julius Caesar' at the Park Ave. Armory

Lucy Bailey’s unflinching production of “Julius Caesar” for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) opens with a savage prequel: against a back projected image of the Capitoline Wolf (a much reproduced bronze sculpture of a wolf suckling Romulus and Remus) two feral young men gouge, maul, and bite one another until one finally succumbs. On such bloody ground is Rome erected, the image suggests, and the subsequent production shows that blood rising again and again to engulf the characters.

The play proper begins with the abandoned revelers celebrating twin occasions — Julius Caesar’s latest military triumphs and the fertility feast of Lupercal. The mood is more hysterical than merry, with women being grabbed and thrown to the ground; one of many images of latent brutality in the work.

Although set in Ancient Rome (Caesar died in 44 BC), the play would have had many topical resonances for an Elizabeth audience. There was widespread civil unrest and discontent, barely contained by aggressive censorship, and a general anxiety about the country’s future as its aging Queen had named no successor. 

So I decided to view it through the lens of contemporary politics, and I turned to WNYC Senior Reporter Robert Hennelly for some pointers.

Hennelly told me that a crucial issue (in a political arena) is the relationship between power and loyalty, and the polarity of loyalty based on trust vs. loyalty based on fear.

This proved to be a key theme that opened up many of the play's scenes and relationships. Caesar quite explicitly expects people to both love and fear him, and with his death, the trust among the conspirators on the one hand, and between the expedient allies Mark Anthony and Octavius Caesar on the other, is tested and frayed.

The other thing to look for, Hennelly said, is how power relationships play out: what does each party gain, or lose?

This question seems particularly resonant when we compare the internal dynamics of "Julius Caesar" to those of our current political landscape. In “Julius Caesar,” characters profess to act in the interests of Rome and the common Roman people while clearly pursuing their own agendas; in Washington, rival political parties and factions often accuse one another of sullying the country’s image, heritage, and ideals, and claim to speak for this or that disenfranchised social group. 

Societies become dysfunctional when there is no trust in leadership, Hennelly said. And Shakespeare shows us the consequence of Caesar’s fatal ambition — and then his murder — a divided and dysfunctional Rome. The play abounds in disturbing images of nature run amok:

A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d and yielded up their dead;
Fierce, fiery warriors fight upon the clouds…
Which drizzled blood upon the Capital…

Characters are bedeviled by portents, and in a foreshadowing of “Hamlet,” written the following year, Brutus is stalked by Caesar’s ghost on the eve of the disastrous battle at Philippi. 

In addition to the trust ↔ power ↔ fear ↔ triangulation, the other linked and dominant images in the play are honor (which appears 30 times), blood (27 times), and love (40 times). There is a lot of blood shed in the name of love and honor, and Bailey wants us to know the cost. The battle-stunned soldiers and their leaders are perpetually filthy and dazed. Once battle is joined between the two factions, the stage rings with the grunts and snarls of combatants and rioters — reducing contemporary Romans to the same bestial level as their wolf-reared founders.

Shakespeare classical sources (primarily Plutarch’s “Lives”) had provided the plot and central characters, but he added the elements of nuanced ambivalence that have scholars still debating which side he was on.

“In technical English literature terms, the center of his DNA is antithesis," said RSC Artistic Director Michael Boyd. "And I think that’s why his plays remain vivid now, because almost like some bottled nuclear reaction, his dilemmas are still fighting it out in that test tube…and you open it up, and they’re still fighting.” 

We can see the characters as representing the extremes of irreconcilable political positions — absolute rule vs. permissible regicide if the ruler is a “tyrant” — but we care about the outcome because of the men themselves. 

Greg Hicks (also this company’s Lear and Leontes) offers up a charismatic Caesar — and he knows it. He is also a subtle study in leadership, with the habit very public men have of declaiming before doing, sometimes in contradiction of their own actions. “I am as constant as the Northern Star” he asserts minutes before his murder. Well, he’s not, of course — we’ve just seen him as changeable and superstitious in the scene with his wife Calphurnia and conspirator Decius Brutus (the other one). Also, to view onesself as fixed as the solar system, and as eternal, is bad statesmanship, for which he pays the ultimate price.

For all this work is called “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,” once he’s dead, it’s Brutus’ play (that would be Marcus Brutus). Sam Troughton’s thoughtful performance included a very Roman level of bravery, as this production marked his return to the stage after he was sidelined by a knee injury during a July 12th performance of "Romeo & Juliet." Walking with a cane, he projected an air of both fragility and determination that partnered well with hectic aura of a man who is never sure that he has done the right thing, but must hang on to his reasons for doing it with all his might. In Troughton’s embodiment, it is easy to see Brutus as a prototype for Hamlet, trapped at the nexus between love and honor.

John Mackay, who plays the morally stricken retainer Camillo in “The Winter’s Tale,” seems to have infused Cassius with some of the other role’s sympathetic color. Cassius is often portrayed as Brutus’ corrupter, whose every word is a slippery slope:

Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

But in the confrontation scene in Act IV, Scene 3 (in which Brutus accuses Cassius of taking bribes), he seems genuinely heartsick at the disintegration of an old friendship. The wild card in this cast of conspirators is Oliver Ryan’s “envious Casca.” With his hair slicked back (and in all that leather), he looks like Sid Vicious and projects the same air of surging instability. 

On the other side of the battlefield, Joseph Arkley as Octavius Caesar, Mark Antony’s ally, also calls to mind a musician — this time the young David Bowie, with the same preening arrogance.

Mark Antony himself is even more firmly a foil to Octavius and Brutus’ opposite in a robust portrayal by Darrell D’Silva. He is a massive man, and uses his own physique as a kind of weapon against anyone around him and against his own perilous temper. He sensibly informs his great speech with outrage and impatience, eschewing the sneering diminuendo approach.

For “Julius Caesar" to matter, we need to see those skeins of power ↔ love ↔ honor ↔ loyalty ↔ trust ravel up and unravel among these men, and to understand how their individual battles are then mirrored in the state. Sort of like watching C-Span.

If this bold production has one flaw, it’s that it taxes the RSC’s plucky 42-person ensemble to the max.  Rome—its citizens and soldiers—is as much a character as the leads; clever video projections swell the modest number of actors into thousands of revelers, rioters; mourners and troops, but there is some awkward doubling of speaking and mime roles: the unmistakable Noma Dumezweni, impassioned as Caesar’s wife, also appears as a supernumerary in the scene in which Anthony shows Caesar’s body to the multitudes, and for a moment one wonders why she isn’t weeping by the body.  And Oliver Ryan, the edgy Casca, reappears as the officer Pindarus—trying to mute all the energy of the other role in an attempt to distinguish the two characters. 

The play ends messily, and inconclusively. The conspirators kill themselves one after another, and Octavius’ closing lines — “So call the field to rest; and let's away/To part the glories of this happy day” — rings hollow.

Bailey drives the point home: as the principals exit, an extinguished regiment shuffles forward, like automatons; and each man falls forward in death. And in Washington, a deal on the debt ceiling crisis is announced. Its principle architect, President Obama, looks grim and exhausted.