After an adoring public raises the charismatic leader Julius Caesar to power, political factions question the leader’s motives and growing influence. Whispers of mutiny rumble through the corridors of power. The country suffers from constant infighting between ambitious military leaders and weaker senators to whom they supposedly owed allegiance. And there is a sharp division between citizens who are represented in the senate and the underrepresented masses.
Such is the situation in William Shakespeare’s 400-year-old political thriller, “Julius Caesar,” the opening production of Seattle Shakespeare Company’s (SSC) 2017-18 season. It runs Sept.13-Oct. 1, 2017 at the Cornish Playhouse.
The most Roman of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, “Julius Caesar” is a ghost story, a murder mystery, and a political thriller all wrapped up in a taut package of 16 scenes.
Peter Crook portrays Julius Caesar, with Reginald Andre Jackson as Brutus, Lorenzo Roberts, as Marc Antony, and Bradford Farwell as Cassius. The other cast members play multiple rolls.
Even though It’s a 400 year old play, it feels as contemporary as today’s headlines, which is why SSC’s Artistic Director, George Mount, chose to the direct the political thriller. “It’s difficult to think about and talk about this play without necessarily being aware of our current political climate,” Mount explains. “We’re living in a highly-charged political time right now. It’s why I picked the play. And we’re not the only Shakespeare company in the country that’s doing it.”
As the action unfolds, Mount’s production of “Julius Caesar” will leap backwards in time from the 21st century to the 1st century– ancient Rome, 44 BC
The show begins outside a building inspired by Greco-Roman architecture, similar to many of our nation’s governmental institutions. The time is now and Caesar returns from a war, trying to transition to civilian life. Contemporary clothing and modern accessories give way to tunics and gladiator swords as the events in “Julius Caesar” become more violent. So don’t despair, Bard fans/aficionados, there will be togas.
Although many men aspire to become the absolute ruler of Rome, only Julius Caesar is likely to succeed. Although he refuses the crown three times in a dramatic public display, his words and actions say otherwise. In his own mind, he’s already an absolute ruler, which would mean the Senators would lose their political powers. Brutus and Cassius, who consider themselves the equals of Caesar or any other citizen, fear that Caesar’s coronation would mean they would no longer be free men.
There was no question that Caesar was full of himself. While sailing, Caesar’s ship was hijacked by pirates off the southwestern coast of Asia Minor. When his captors named a ransom price for his release, Caesar was insulted by the number. He insisted that a greater sum be demanded. Eventually, the higher figure was raised and Caesar was freed.
Brutus compares Caesar to a “serpent’s egg” that should be destroyed before it hatches and becomes dangerous. The conspirators see Caesar as a threat to Rome. Not because he is a tyrant, but because he might become one if he is crowned king.
On the Ides of March (15 March on the Roman calendar) of 44 BC, when Caesar was due to appear at a session of the Senate, a group of Senators—as many as 60– conspired to assassinate him. He was stabbed 23 times. Brutus was the last to stab Caesar, therefore his infamous last words, “et tu Brute.”
The assassination, however, fails to put an end to the power struggles dividing the empire, and civil war soon erupts.
The plot of Shakespeare’s play includes the events leading up to the assassination, as well as the subsequent civil war, in which the deaths of the leading conspirators constitute a sort of revenge for the assassination.
Who are the heroes and who are the villains? It’s not always obvious in “Julius Caesar,” Bloody and brutal decisions are weighed against honor and ambition.
“Shakespeare leaves a lot of apolitical options,” says director Mount. “There are just as many negative aspects of the people who you think are the heroes and just as many positive aspects of the people you think are the villains. It’s what gives this play life to be a mirror for whatever time it is.”
Julius Caesar is not the main character of the play that bears his name; Brutus has over four times as many lines. Also, there are only two female characters in “Julius Caesar”: Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, and Portia, the wife of Brutus. In the Roman world, women were irrelevant. They were not allowed to speak in public and were barred from the world of politics
In 1864, John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln, played the role of Mark Antony in a production of “Julius Caesar” in New York City. Scholars speculate that this may have influence Booth’s decision to assassinate Lincoln—that Booth may have identified with Brutus.
It is said that Nelson Mandela survived his imprisonment with the help a secret copy of Shakespeare’s works. Known as the Robben Island bible, it passed from inmate to inmate. Mandela signed his name in the book next to a passage from “Julius Caesar”—“Cowards die many times before their deaths… The valiant never taste of death but once.”
“Julius Caesar” runs Sept 13-Oct 1, 2017, Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30 PM with selected Saturdays at 2PM, selected Sundays at 2PM and 7:30PM at the Cornish Playhouse (formerly the Intiman Theatre);. Tickets range from range from $25-$55. discounts available for groups of ten or more; call SSC’s box office (206) 733-8222 or go online at www.seattleshakespeare.org.
Who’s Who in “Julius Caesar?”
Julius Caesar: A great Roman general who has recently returned to Rome after a military victory in Spain. He played a critical role in the events that led to the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.
Brutus: A high-ranking, well-regarded Roman nobleman who participates in a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. Even though he loves and admires Caesar personally, Brutus is motivated by his sense of honor to place the good of Rome above his own personal interests or feelings. Brutus’s rigid idealism is both his greatest virtue and his most deadly flaw
Antony: A loyal friend of Caesar’s. Antony is notoriously impulsive and pleasure-seeking. As resourceful as he is unscrupulous, Antony proves to be a dangerous enemy of Brutus and the other conspirators.
Cassius: A talented general and longtime acquaintance of Caesar. A shrewd opportunist without integrity, Cassius slyly leads Brutus to believe that Caesar has become too powerful and must die.
Octavius: Caesar’s 18-year-old, adopted son and appointed successor. Octavius returns to Rome after Caesar’s death, then joins with Antony and sets off to fight Cassius and Brutus in a civil war.
Casca: As a representative of the common people of Rome, blunt-speaking Casca resents Caesar’s ambition. He is the first to stab Caesar.
Calphurnia: After nightmares and a series of omens, Caesar’s wife, Calphurnia, warns Caesar against going to the Senate on the Ides of March.
Portia: Brutus’s wife and the daughter of a noble Roman (Cato) who took sides against Caesar. Portia bemoans the fact that Brutus is suddenly reluctant to confide in her.
Flavius and Murellus: Two tribunes who are punished for removing the decorations from Caesar’s statues during Caesar’s triumphal parade.
Cicero: A Roman senator and brilliant orator, Cicero speaks at Caesar’s triumphal parade. He later dies at the order of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus.
Lepidus: The third member of Antony and Octavius’s coalition. Trusted by Octavius; untrusted by Antony.
Decius: Another conspirator, Decius convinces Caesar that Calphurnia misinterpreted her dire nightmares, and he leads Caesar right into the hands of his assassins.