Despite strong performances from a gender blind cast, Scott Wentworth’s production is a confusing and misguided adaptation.
Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s tragedy about resisting tyranny through lawless means, feels uncomfortably relevant today. So I’m baffled by director Scott Wentworth’s production at the 2018 Stratford Theatre Festival. Wentworth, who ably helmed Pericles in 2015, has given us a Caesar that seems curiously unmoved by the play’s subject-matter. His characters deliver their lines in a contextless aether. Their motivations seem unclear even to themselves. The tone ranges from slow to unintentionally hilarious. Despite the best efforts of Seana McKenna and Michelle Giroux, there’s no saving this listless production.
Context is key for Julius Caesar because it’s a political drama. Though egos clash, the play’s three central figures seldom interact: military leader turned would-be autocrat Caesar (Seana McKenna, playing a man); his hard-partying supporter Mark Antony (Michelle Giroux, also in a male role); and noble Brutus (Jonathan Goad), the Roman par excellence. They are driven to act by the political crucible of Rome. A successful staging must instantly convey the sense of imminent crisis that spurs these characters on. Caesar’s popularity is reaching a frenzied apex; rumours fly that the governing Senate will soon capitulate to Caesar, turning the historic republic into an autocracy. Brutus and Cassius’s plot to assassinate Caesar, which triggers a bloody civil war, only makes sense if the stakes feel high enough to justify drastic action.
Yet this production at Stratford lacks the necessary urgency, partly because Wentworth stages it like it’s 1599. Characters wear sumptuous Elizabethan doublets and hose (in shades of brown and beige — was there a sale?) with shawls for togas and leather breastplates in battle. The blocking can best be described as “park-and-bark”: only the actor talking gets to move; everyone else stands still and stares at the person speaking until it’s their turn. No togas are ripped or blood spilled in this fastidiously tidy production, despite the murder and civil war. Instead, people get stabbed through the armpit like it’s a middle-school pantomime. All this takes place on a nearly bare set, employing Stratford’s trademark minimalist staging.
These production choices are distracting — it’s hard to look imposing in floppy pantaloons — but worse, they don’t establish a believable world for the play. Setting Shakespeare in modern dress provides a common visual vocabulary to signal class, social standing, and relationships, giving us an instant sense of the play’s milieu. Even choosing specific historical periods can reap dramatic rewards, as in Ian McKellan’s vivid 1930’s Richard III. This isn’t to say originalist productions are ineffective, just that a period staging requires thoughtful interpretive decisions to balance the audience’s unfamiliarity. In its original incarnation, Shakespeare was meant to be instantly legible to its audience. 400 years later, a 21st century impression of how the Elizabethans might have styled the Romans is legible to precious few. Especially if everyone involved is wearing brown.
A stripped-down staging can work if your actors shoulder the task of world-building, but here, too, this Caesar falls. For starters, Wentworth seems uninterested in the play’s protagonist. Brutus first appears onstage alone, like an afterthought — walking down the street looking terminally rumpled, with no indication of who he is or how he relates to everyone else. If you didn’t know the play, you might be forgiven for thinking he was a walk-on character. We get the impression of a loner, perhaps a bit of a misanthrope, but not a leading citizen who could lend legitimacy to a murder conspiracy. Three years ago, Jonathan Goad played brilliantly against Seana McKenna in Hamlet, but now, he recites half-heartedly, never achieving a fully fleshed-out character. In fairness, Wentworth cuts some of Brutus’ best lines. The text of Julius Caesar provides singular insight into Brutus’ inner life, and even his foes declare him “the noblest Roman of them all.” Yet this production trims Brutus’ moments of reflection while a lot of lesser stuff stays in, such as two speeches in Act 1 that are just lists of weird omens. I’m confused by Wentworth’s priorities.
If this production dismisses Brutus, it’s very sympathetic to Caesar and Antony. Wentworth displays stunning tone-deafness by seeming to wonder if Caesar and Antony were more sinned-against than sinning. Seana McKenna is spellbinding as Caesar, portraying a man who has come to wear power like a birthright. She sands down Caesar’s worst characteristics, his arrogance and imperiousness softened to charming egotism. Still, her speech in the Senate House is unconvincing. McKenna and Wentworth seem unwilling to make Caesar truly ugly as he declares in absolute terms, “Caesar doth not wrong.” Michelle Giroux is similarly magnetic as Mark Antony, but her portrayal runs against the grain of the text. Her Antony is a quiet, watchful planner, not the drunken “reveller” other characters describe, and I never felt the bond that should exist between him and Caesar. Giroux’s stage charisma is such that I thrilled to her speeches, but it’s hard to square her measured affect with the text. Her character’s coherence flaps in the breeze.
The gender-blind casting is one (relatively) high point of the play, and one production choice I welcomed. Caesar and Antony are challenging roles that befit McKenna and Giroux’s considerable talents, and we’ll get better theatre if our best actors have access to all of Shakespeare’s characters. There are two ways to effect such gender-blind casting: either change the gender of the character, as with Groundling Theatre’s female King Lear earlier this year (McKenna again); or have a female actor play a male role as written. Wentworth has chosen the latter route, which requires no interpretive changes to the text. The characters played by women come off as gender-neutral rather than masculine, but overall, this doesn’t detract from the production, which has bigger problems.
These problems include periodic descents into bathos. The slow-motion battle scenes could be charitably called cinematic, but Caesar’s death was one of the funniest things I’ve seen on stage. It doesn’t start well: Caesar is stabbed literally in the back, because this production is subtle, and McKenna’s eyes pop open like she’s just been goosed. Caesar lurches from his chair, wheels around, and seizes Decius Brutus (Brad Hodder) by the throat, shaking him like a terrier as the conspirators close in. By now the stage is bathed in red light, giving this climactic event the feel of a bordello brawl. Caesar staggers into Brutus’s arms and gasps the famous “Et tu, Brute?” like a betrayed lover — although they’ve never been onstage together before this scene. In the cherry atop this dreadful sundae, a shower of honest-to-goodness red rose petals streams from the rafters. It could be a parody of bloated, self-serious directing.
I came away wondering why Stratford decided to mount Julius Caesar at all, or what Scott Wentworth hoped to achieve. Seana McKenna is majestic, and Giroux, straining against the script, could be a compelling Antony in a different staging. But when characters’ motives are murky and the stakes unclear, the moral force of their struggle is lost. Wentworth’s earth-toned Elizabethan version comes off as ponderous and strangely detached from the moral and political questions at the centre of the play. These questions, expressed through blazing verse, are what makes Shakespeare worth performing.
We cover new and old Shakespeare productions on our 21st Folio podcast, dedicated to modern Shakespeare productions of stage and screen. Each episode features a panel discussion with Seventh Row editors and contributors (and friends) where we delve deep into the production’s interpretive choices and how and why it does or does not work.
Wentworth’s Julius Caesar is the second disappointing Shakespeare production we saw at the Stratford Festival this year. We previously discussed Robert Lepage’s Coriolanus on our 21st Folio podcast. More modern plays fared only slightly better; we reviewed Stratford’s adequate but unimaginative An Ideal Husband, which took the sting out of Wilde. If you’re looking for a dose of Shakespeare, we recommend the Hollow Crown films.