Thursday, September 29, 2016

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

My second child is the one I call the Macabre Daughter. She has always been fascinated with death and “gross” things. She asked me - at age three I believe - if animals liked being eaten. Her favorite animal was a mouse - starting at under a year old. Today, she has a large collection of stuffed Kangaroo Rats (and has been carefully checking at night wherever we camp to see the live ones.) She recently made a Dracula costume for one of them. She likes getting shots, and has an incredible tolerance for pain. So it was no surprise when we started seeing live theater with the kids that she took an immediate liking to the tragedies. After all, everyone dies. So it’s all good, right?

Of the four plays we saw at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, the only tragedy was Julius Caesar. She really, really wanted to see King Lear last year (she is named Cordelia…) but we couldn’t make it work, alas.

It was nice to catch a more serious play here, I must say. Julius Caesar can be a challenging play to produce, not least because Shakespeare assumes a certain familiarity with Plutarch and with Roman history and politics in general. In particular, the role of Caesar seems a bit sparse, and one must fill in the gaps to understand exactly what motivates Brutus.

The beauty of this particular production, then, was in the way that Julius Caesar was portrayed. Actor Paul Michael Sandberg is tall and imposing, with a shaved head, deep and powerful voice, and the ability to exude lofty arrogance in spades. He has the command of his rank, and a clear ability to marshall men to him. When he walked on stage, I could feel that certain vibe - it’s hard to explain it. He was both electric and yet dangerous. 

Paul Michael Sandburg (center) as Julius Caesar

Thus, it was much easier to understand the dilemma of Brutus, who once had a love for Caesar the man, but is struggling with the force of power he is becoming. And Cassius, as he should be, was ambiguously motivated. How much do his personal reasons influence his well-articulated political reasons for wanting Caesar dead? He makes for a perfect foil for the equally morally ambivalent Antony. (More about him later.) This all made the famous lines by Caesar so powerful in the context of this production:

CAESAR: Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look.
He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.
Yet if my name were liable to fear,
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much.
He is a great observer, and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men. He loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony. He hears no music.
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mocked himself and scorned his spirit
That could be moved to smile at anything.
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous.

Another one of Paul Michael Sandberg. Because.

Caesar mocks the very idea of fear, and yet he is perceptive enough to sense the danger. Cassius is played by Rex Young, who does indeed seem smarmy enough and yet earnest. In some other productions I have seen, Cassius was too crafty, and it was hard to believe a truly conflicted Brutus would associate with him. But in this case, Cassius was compelling. I might have joined the conspiracy myself.

The sad part of this play is that, of historical necessity, Caesar is killed before the intermission. It really is sad to see him go. Even in this version, where Caesar is arrogant to the point of unpleasantness, it still is a shame that he has to die. What could have been…

And this is where a truly excellent Brutus is necessary. While Caesar gets the name of the play, if we are honest, it might better have been named “The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus.” In order for the play to work, Brutus must both be the hero of the play, and have a genuine moral conflict which overwhelms him. The circumstances he faces must, in order to make a proper tragedy, be too great for any man to navigate successfully. Jeffrey Cummings did a fine job in the role.

But the credit for the best performance has to go to Antony. My wife has attended the Shakespeare Festival with a friend for three years running. During that time, they have performed the histories in order - she joined the fun with Henry IV Part 1. They have kept the same actor for each character throughout, which means three years of Sam Ashdown as prince Hal, and later Henry V. Amanda has been telling me how good this guy was since she first saw him.

He plays Antony in this play.

Holy smokes. As my wife put it, he seems almost too big for the stage. And that is in a figurative sense. He’s actually a pretty small guy, about my size. But man does he fill that stage. He first appears with Caesar, who cuts a big enough space, but by the end of Act III Scene 1, he owns the play.

ANTONY: O! pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers;  
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood;
Over thy wounds now do I prophesy,
Which like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips,
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue,
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,     
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;
All pity chok’d with custom of fell deeds:
And Cæsar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,   
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

With that one line, “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war,” which is one of Shakespeare’s most powerful, I was moved, I will admit. Full shivers down the spine, and a visceral reaction. Dang, what a great moment.

And that’s before one gets to Antony’s speech. (Did anyone else have to memorize this for High School? Julius Caesar was the first Shakespeare play I read then, and we memorized the speech.) Antony owned this moment. Not just with his “audience,” but with the real life audience. I have seen this play before live, but this different.

The second half of the play is, I’m afraid, a bit of a slow letdown. The hazards of using history as a source. It’s not Shakespeare’s strongest finish, to say the least. But there are some good moments. In this particular production, which is “set” in modernish (probably Cold War Era) costume, Strato, the soldier who assists Brutus in his final suicide, is played by the same actor as Caesar. But you don’t know this until he takes off his flak helmet and mask. And then Brutus, momentarily startled, says his final lines:

Caesar, now be still.
I killed not thee with half so good a will.

Nicely played, I would say.

Perhaps the most relevant theme of Julius Caesar, though, is that of the nature of crowds. Within the few hours of the play, the public has gone from wishing Caesar crowned as one of the gods to anger at his “ambition” and full support for Brutus to wild anger willing to sacrifice an innocent poet for having the wrong name. Then as now, the cult of personality and the forces of hate and anger are the true weapons of mass destruction. Within a few years, the old Republic of Rome, many of its most noble and gifted men, and the ideals of liberty were destroyed, and in their place rose one of the bloodiest and ruthless police states the world has ever known. The Dogs of War indeed.

I also want to mention a few things about the staging and production. The Utah Shakespeare Festival has the benefit of fairly high budgets, which means that sets, props, and costumes are all high quality. In this case, there is a larger-than-life statue of Pompey (which looks strikingly similar to Caesar...) which dominates one side of the stage.

Well, perhaps I need to describe the stage too. This was held in one of the new indoor theaters, the Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre, a smaller venue. It has two ranks of bleachers, with the stage in the middle. Kind of like a high school gym set up for Basketball. This means that there are no curtains, and only the two ends (which are small) fixed. The larger sides each have the audience there, and actors must essentially act so as to be seen and heard by people 180 degrees apart. This works pretty well, but must certainly require carefully planned choreography and outstanding awareness by the actors.

So, back to the statue. It dominated the one fixed wall, and was creepy in the “communist dictator statue” kind of way. The other wall had a two-story scaffolding erected - as if the site were a work in progress. There was little, therefore, in the way of a back stage, and there was nowhere to hide. Thus, scene changes needed carefully timed light and sound work in addition to perfect timing on entrances by the actors.

Another challenge in the small space was the quick cleanup needed for the copious stage blood that was shed. The macabre daughter loved all this, although my 8-year-old son had to reassure himself it was fake. (This is the one play my 5-year-old daughter did not attend.) The moment when the conspirators bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood was appropriately creepy.

On the other hand, the intimate venue (about 200 seats maximum) means the play is seen up close. Facial expressions translate beautifully, and soft voices can be heard without difficulty. (These are professional productions, so there is never any difficulty hearing the actors, but they can go to a lower level of whisper in this venue.)

This was an excellent production all around, with easily the best-developed Caesar I have seen.


  1. This is one my favourite plays, though unfortunately the only time I have seen it was a really bad Charlton Heston movie. I agree that the 'let slip the dogs of war' speech is probably one of Shakespeare's most powerful.

    It sounds like there are a few Shakespeare festivals over in the US. A friend of mine went to the Colorado Shakespeare festival earlier this year.

    1. There are. Cedar City, Utah, happens to be the closest truly great one to us, a reasonable day's drive. And that's before you get to the individual performances available in Los Angeles and San Diego. It's a good time to be alive.

  2. I love that you named your daughter Cordelia. Maybe you need to introduce her to opera. In opera, there is always someone dying...either being killed or committing suicide.

    1. She does rather like the Opera the Symphony has done in years past. Barber of Seville was nice, but she really liked Don Giovanni best. :D