Genius Caesar

I think of Julius Caesar as the play only political philosophy geeks can like. On the page there are all kinds of interesting themes: the corruption of republican Rome into tyranny; whether the restoration Brutus attempted was even possible with a people too corrupt to be free (when Antony tells the people Caesar won their freedom for them, they cry, "You be Caesar!"); whether Brutus is in fact a good man (he has a pure heart, but poor judgment); whose side is Shakespeare on? Why does he hew closely to Plutarch's account in some respects and depart from it in others? It's got everything for politics buffs. Less for audiences. Staged, every performance I've ever seen is basically: Men Declaiming- Wait for scene change- Men Declaiming -Wait for scene change- Men Declaiming, et cetera until, mercifully: Curtain.

So when we took in the Shakespeare Theatre's production last night, I expected an evening rather more thoughtful than pleasant. Director David Muse has accomplished the well-nigh impossible: made Julius Caesar moving, in both senses of the word. It's wonderfully paced -- deft use of a two-tiered set and clever staging mean there's never anything lost to scene changes, so there's nothing to detract from the strong performances --this is the first production of Caesar I've seen that made me care about the characters as such, rather than in their abstract political significance. Tom Hammond makes a fine Brutus: pure of heart, noble and manly. He's particularly strong in the scene where Brutus and Cassius quarrel. Andrew Long makes a wonderfully sardonic Antony, and Julius Caesar and Portia are also especially well-played. Without giving it away, there's wonderful use made of Caesar's ghost in this production, and I also appreciated the staging of the beating of the poet Cinna: that it was staged at all. For some reason --probably time constraints-- directors usually cut it, but nothing better establishes the mood of Rome during the action than that scene.

Caesar's being done in rotating rep with Antony & Cleopatra, which I now wish I could see again. We saw it in its first dress rehearsal, and my impression of it was that it was good --the production emphasizes the opulent decay of the fleshpots of Egypt-- but hadn't quite gelled yet. Bet by now it has. Something that struck me last night is that both plays end precisely the same way: with Octavius Caesar ordering full military obsequies (and here the tenuous connection between these plays and memorial day) for his vanquished opponents. The last lines of Julius Caesar have Octavian saying over the body of Brutus:
According to his virtue let us use him,
With all respect and rites of burial.
Within my tent his bones to-night shall lie,
Most like a soldier, order'd honourably.
So call the field to rest; and let's away,
To part the glories of this happy day.
At the end of Antony & Cleopatra he says over Antony's body:
High events as these
Strike those that make them; and their story is
No less in pity than his glory which
Brought them to be lamented. Our army shall
In solemn show attend this funeral;
And then to Rome. Come, Dolabella, see
High order in this great solemnity.
He's not the most interesting character in either play, but he always gets what he wants. It's easy to appreciate your opponents' virtues when they are dead.