Julius Caesar, The Globe, 1 May 2012
In the second half of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar the dead ruler becomes a malevolent, unseen presence directing events to their tragic conclusion.
The main feature of I Termini Company’s Italian adaptation of the play was that it also made Caesar an unseen presence before he was assassinated. No actor was cast in the role. Caesar was referred to and quoted by other characters, but never appeared. At least as a person.
The staging was minimalist. Three door leafs rumbled around the stage as multifunction props, sliding apart to provide entrances and exits.
As the performance began, loudspeakers filled the auditorium with the Soothsayer’s repeated whispered warning to Caesar. Characters moved purposefully around the stage. A man danced with a bunch of flowers. Another, standing in front of a door, picked it up and carried it away on his back following the dancer. Women pointed light bulbs at the audience, an effect which would have worked better on a dark stage. Swelling orchestral music played in the background.
This quirky start established the production’s visual language and once we were accustomed to its conventions, all began to make sense.
Rome under this invisible Caesar was a dark, mad place.
The man with the flowers stood with his back to the audience and gestured wildly, at first with the bouquet and then also with a gun, telling Cassius about Caesar and the big Lupercal festival.
Cassius did indeed look lean and hungry: like a bird of prey. Roberto Manzi was bald and he cut a menacing figure in his black roll neck and black tail coat. He sat by a broken, black chair rising to hit himself on the head and punch a door.
He castigated the Romans for being brainless animals that had once supported Caesar’s rival Pompey.
Calphurnia crawled in and began slapping herself. The slight strabismus of Ersilia Lombardo’s eyes added to the oddity of her frantic characterisation. After spinning and falling to the ground, she knocked on the doors as if to gain entry, only to be rebuffed. She cried out to Cassius asking him to say whether she looked alright.
The cause of this incredible insecurity became apparent. Caesar’s wife was infertile, but could be cured by Antony’s touch during the Lupercal, for which reason she also cried out for him.
The doors were used to make an almost instant switch between Calphurnia and Brutus (Giandomenico Cupaiuolo), who entered running on the spot wearing a formal frock coat.
Just like a black hole, the unseen Caesar was exerting a powerful warping effect on the fabric of the universe around him.
The scene in which Cassius attempted to recruit Brutus to his plot was more or less as per the original. Cassius sat on the ground, while Brutus’ backside was dunked through the seat of the broken chair. Twice a door fell to the ground revealing Calphurnia as if she was trying to break in.
Cassius argued that Brutus and Caesar’s names were of equal worth. Brutus wrote “Caesar” in chalk across the three doors, after which Cassius scrawled “Brutus” underneath. With the help of this kind of visual aid, Brutus was beginning to get the point.
The leather-jacketed Casca (Lucas Waldem Zanforlini) entered bouncing a ball on the ground. Calpurunia was carried in and rolled downstage. Together, they recounted things Caesar had said about Cassius, mentioning his lean and hungry look and excess of thinking.
Calphurnia repeatedly jumped into each man’s arms but was lowered to the ground each time. Casca reported how Caesar had been offered the crown but had refused it.
Brutus agreed to meet the next day with Cassius, who in turn planned a letter drop to convince Brutus to join with him.
Cassius’ striving was given physical expression as he crawled across the stage in pursuit of a door with the chair seat around his waist.
Brutus sat on a seat folded out from a door and called for his servant Lucius. He tried to sleep but hands emerged from behind the other two doors and pinched him awake.
He read the forged letters and mulled over the plot. Cassius and Casca knocked from behind the doors and then sat on top. Brutus agreed to join them.
Brutus’s wife Portia (Livia Castiglioni) entered in her white dress. He tried to embrace her, but she repeatedly ducked and ran away. She shrieked and drove her head into his chest.
They ended up lying on the ground close together as she demanded to know his secrets, asserting her noble origins and exposing her leg, referencing the wound she had given herself.
The amplified whispering of the Soothsayer was heard again. Calphurnia staggered onstage, mouthing the detailed warning about Cassius and company, accompanied by choral music.
She told the unseen Caesar about her foreboding dreams. Her voice was drowned out by the music, at which point Casca approached from behind and sewed up her mouth. She grimaced and struggled as the mimed operation succeeded in silencing her, after which Casca carried her off.
The broken, black chair was placed centre stage. The three conspirators gathered upstage as an orchestral arrangement of Kraftwerk’s The Model played. They adjusted their clothes and hair and moved slowly downstage. Pausing by the chair, they drew out a red crayon and began to make marks on the chair, slowly at first, but then faster and faster. Brutus was given the crayon last, and slowly made one big mark. With that final stroke, the music stopped.
Having been completely absent up to this point, Caesar was now being represented by the black chair.
Mark Antony’s response to the assassination was read from a note by Casca.
Mark Antony (Gabriele Portoghese) wore casual clothes with the left arm of his jacket rolled up. He drank from a hip flask and gregariously shook the conspirators’ hands in an attempt to befriend them. Clearly under the influence of drink, he hugged each one in turn, trying to jump into their arms. But he fell to the ground each time when the embrace was not reciprocated.
He was allowed to speak at Caesar’s funeral, something which prompted Cassius to shout “Non mi va!” or “I like it not.” At this point the interval came.
At the start of the second half, Brutus was lying on a door laid on top of two bins. He got up and stood on the door to deliver his oration facing the audience.
An audience of Romans, consisting of hats raised above the doors on sticks, listened to Mark Antony’s oration.
They were noisy at first, but responded emotionally to his speech. Hands peeped from behind the doors, wringing tears out of handkerchiefs. A bloody cloth representing Caesar’s bloodstained clothing also appeared from behind the doors.
With the Romans turned in Antony’s favour, the conspirators had to flee. Casca emerged with ropes tied to his wrists struggling to escape. He was repeatedly pulled back, then collapsed before being dragged off.
Brutus packed a suitcase while Portia committed suicide by swallowing hot coals. She smeared herself with crayon, put light bulbs in her mouth representing the coals and lay on a door supported by bins.
In a touching moment, Brutus tipped the door into a semi-upright position and carried Portia away, bearing the weight of the door on his back as he dragged the bottom of it across the stage.
Octavius and Antony met to plan their attack on the conspirators.
Cassius repeatedly threw down the door in front of him, replaced it and threw down another. This confrontational behaviour foreshadowed his argument with Brutus as cracks in their alliance emerged.
Brutus contradicted Cassius, underlying the vigour of his opposition by occasionally jumping in and out the bin. The audience applauded this feat of athleticism.
The door seat again provided a place of slumber for Brutus, who had a vision of Caesar’s ghost. This consisted of Calphurnia dressed in elaborate mourning black, crawling on the ground with the seat of the broken chair up to her waist. She carried a nail and a candle, which she left onstage.
Octavius knelt on the ground and clicked his fingers as if ready for a rumble, before being joined by Antony to discuss their battle plan.
Brutus and Cassius stood on the opposite of the stage, and the resulting confrontation saw slapping and jostling by each side.
The battle finally began as Brutus was wheeled backwards on a trolley, shouting about the supposed tiredness of the opposition.
Cassius was left alone and became afraid that their forces had been defeated. He struck a match and lit the candle left by Calphurnia. He told us that it was his birthday and eventually he leant over the candle to blow it out.
He took the nail and put it to his neck. He called on one of his soldiers to kill him. The soldier, played by Ersilia in a raincoat and hat, scampered on. Cassius crouched, while the soldier perched the conspirator’s knees and, leaning forwards over him, smeared his face with red. Red crayon marks were made on top of his head. The soldier led Cassius away in a zig zag, placing him behind a door.
Brutus emerged immediately from behind the same door and called out to Cassius, who was then revealed collapsed dead in the chair.
The last conspirator praised Caesar’s might before beckoning five soldiers, all in coats and hats. They shuffled several times from one side of the stage to another as Brutus tried to get them to kill him.
Brutus took off his jacket, and the soldiers filed past to kiss him. They circled round him marking his white shirt with red stripes, going faster and faster until just two were left continuing the assault.
The doors came forward and then parted, dramatically revealing the black chair into which Brutus was then deposited, thereby ending the play.
This more complex staging of play’s final moment was more satisfying than the traditional single stab, which by comparison looks very dull.
Moreover, the decision to make Caesar unseen throughout gave the production a coherence and unity of tone often missing from stagings of the original text.
The whole reworking and theatrical language of the production made it the most innovative and radical of the Globe to Globe festival to date.