Stage Door Review

Julius Caesar

Sunday, January 12, 2020

✭✭

by William Shakespeare, directed by Chris Abraham

Groundling Theatre Company & Crow’s Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto

January 10-February 2, 2020

Antony (about Brutus): “This was the noblest Roman of them all”

The Groundling Theatre Company and Crow’s Theatre production was well on its way to becoming the best production of Julius Caesar I had ever seen. Chris Abraham’s insightful direction encouraged the starry cast to bring out numerous details in Shakespeare’s text that previous directors had merely glossed over. All the major roles were played with greater complexity than I had ever seen before. Abraham even gave more coherence to the problematic Acts 4 and 5 than others had done.

But then came a totally unnecessary ten-minute-long epilogue by Zach Russell that put a halt to the show’s momentum and blunted its impact. One can understand why at this particular time in the 21st century Abraham would feel the desire to underscore the relevance of Shakespeare’s play to the present, but, in fact, he had provided such clear direction of the play up to that point that Russell’s epilogue only repeated points Abraham had already made clear. To add to Shakespeare can be thought daring, but, more often than not, it is foolhardy.

Part of the thrill of the present production of Julius Caesar is that it is presented in the Streetcar Crowsnest's Guloien Theatre, a venue with a capacity of only 200. The intimacy of the venue combined with the grandeur of Shakespeare subject automatically increases the work’s effect. Abraham has configured the space to play the action in the round. This is an ideal way to reinforce the play’s imagery of seeing and being seen. The conspirators constantly fear they are being watched – and they are by us. When orators speak to the populace of Rome we become that populace.

Given the empty space it is the miraculously close coordination of Lorenzo Savoini’s lighting and Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design that create the environment we experience. Savoini’s lights shift between naturalistic effects and pinspots on speakers to signal when characters speak their private thoughts. Payne’s soundscape is generally ominous with distant, unidentifiable booms and shrieks. Yet, it can be a character in its own right when it becomes the noises of the crowd as they react to the speeches of Brutus and Mark Antony.

Abraham begins with Diego Matamoros, Jani Lauzon and André Sills sitting at desks with laptops and phones in an area closed off with chain-link fencing. This is a prologue written by Zach Russell presenting the trio as part of a broadcast news team. In contrast to Russell’s epilogue, this prologue serves a useful function. While we do wonder when the play proper will finally begin, Russell’s intro immediately announces that Abraham has relocated the action to the present or near future and this allows the broadcasters to give background to the situation in Rome, such as the struggle for power between Caesar and Pompey, that the educated among Shakespeare’s audience would already know.

Abraham’s close attention to the text and the precision of his direction brings out more sophisticated portrayals of Shakespeare’s characters than is usually the case with this play. Moya O’Connell creates the most psychologically intriguing Cassius I have ever seen. Her Cassius is driven seemingly more by hatred of Caesar and his faction than by idealism. Cassius’s hatred is so strong it makes Cassius appear feverish and over-anxious. Having Cassius played by a woman allows Abraham to bring out aspects of Cassius’s relationship with Brutus that few directors explore. It should be clear merely from Shakespeare’s text, but it is more obvious when O’Connell speaks to Dion Johnstone’s Brutus, that Cassius’s attempt to get Brutus to join the other conspirators is a form of seduction. As played by O’Connell, Cassius love for Brutus courses through at least of three of the eight forms of love identified by the Greeks. Cassius love for Brutus may have begun as philia (φιλία) or love between friends but has since moved on to unfulfilled eros (ἔρως) and gradually slides into the obsessive love of mania (μανία).

To show this side of Cassius is to show that her passion to have Brutus join the conspirators is not as pure as Brutus would like to think. It also prepares us for Cassius’s betrayal of the conspirator’s idealism that is the subject of the argument between Brutus and Cassius in Act 4.

For his part Dion Johnstone impresses us as one of the finest Shakespearean actors of his generation. Though costume designer Ming Wong makes him look bookish with black-framed glasses, Johnstone still exudes undeniable charisma that hints at power roiling under Brutus’s placid exterior. Never have I seen Brutus’s idealism so clearly depicted as both his strength and his weakness. Johnstone’s intellectual Brutus believes he can separate Caesar’s flaw of ambition from all his well-known virtues and make that the justifiable cause for assassinating him. Yet, anyone with greater experience of the world should know that virtues and vices are not well compartmentalized in human beings.

Most productions do not bother to give us a nuanced portrait of Julius Caesar, but Jim Mezon does. Caesar is said to be a mixture of virtues and vices and so Mezon shows us. In his scene with Calpurnia (Sarah Afful) we see that Mezon’s Caesar has a sense of humour and is not such a monomaniac as to ignore his wife’s concerns and is yet strong and absolutely determined to get what he wants.

Abraham cleverly emphasizes the parallel between Brutus’s scene with Portia (Michelle Giroux) and Caesar’s with Calpurnia by having them acted on the two diagonals of the playing area with the male towards the centre and the female kneeling towards the male. The difference we see is that Johnstone’s idealistic but troubled Brutus treats his wife far more brusquely than does the pragmatic and secure Caesar.

Graham Abbey is directed to play Mark Antony in quite a different approach than is usual. Abbey’s character is more rough-hewn and less calculating. Abbey delivers Antony’s famous speech not as a sly orator who has already planned how to work the crowd to a frenzy, but rather as he describes himself “a plain blunt man”. What makes Abbey’s delivery of the speech so gripping is that he shows us that Mark Antony starts to realize the power of his words as he is saying them and basically learns as he goes along how easily he can inflame the crowd’s emotions. Thus Antony’s realization of his increasing power parallels the increasing power he has over his audience, their response (in Payne’s fantastic soundscape) feeding his words, his words their response.

All through the action Abraham has made insightful choices. Cinna the Poet, torn apart by the mob who mistake him for the conspirator Lucius Cornelius Cinna, is usually played by a youth. It is much more effective, as here, to have him played by a distinguished older man, Walter Borden, who can hardly believe the bestiality made manifest in humanity.

Abraham helps unify the defective Acts 4 and 5 by having the ghost of Caesar stay long enough on his second visit to Brutus to watch over the idealist’s demise. Never has the scene between Cassius and Trebonius (Jani Lauzon) made so much sense as it does here. Cassius hasty in assuming the worst has happened to Trebonius commits suicide only to be found by heart-rent Trebonius on her return. In the context of how Abraham and O’Connell have portrayed Cassius, this final act feels like the culmination of a life built on desperation.

At various points throughout the action, Abraham has his trio of newscasters appear on the scene to give updates on the action which function as footnotes that help make the context clear, such as the where in Italy Sardia is located in relation to Philippi. One time a newscaster (Matamoros) looks at attitudes of past Romans about what is happening. André Sills, who otherwise plays a vibrant Casca, for a moment plays Gaius Marcius Coriolanus of 400 years earlier. This is an in-joke much appreciated by the audience, since Sills’s fame increased considerably when he played a much-lauded Coriolanus at the Stratford Festival in 2018.

It is, therefore, a great pity after Antony has given his heartfelt eulogy of Brutus as “the noblest Roman of them all” and Octavius (Sarah Afful) has given her tone-deaf response to the situation by calling it “this happy day”, that Abraham should append Zach Russell’s epilogue to the play. In this the newscasters, primarily Matamoros, question both the living and the dead about whether they have “any regrets”. After Abraham’s directorial insights that have made the play shine like new and after the tremendous performances from the entire cast, this pedestrian sequence is painful to listen to. The irony of Antony and Octavius’s contrasting responses to the same events is enough.

Yet, one can understand, given the bizarre events occurring in our neighbour to the south whose head of state has had to be reminded that he is not a king, why Abraham would be tempted to tie the action of Shakespeare’s play more closely to the present. Yet, it is a temptation to avoid. Abraham's updated setting has already established a parallel with the present and needs no more words to make it more pertinent.

Nevertheless, mentally expunging the epilogue, Abraham’s Julius Caesar is the best production of this play that I have ever seen. I would only hope that should the production be revived, which it should, that Abraham expunge the epilogue himself so that the production ends with Shakespeare’s own words and the historically fateful irony that they embody.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Dion Johnstone as Brutus and Moya O’Connell as Cassius; Jim Mezon as Julius Caesar; Sarah Afful as Octavius and Graham Abbey as Mark Antony; Dion Johnstone as Brutus. © 2020 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets, visit www.crowstheatre.com.