The Folger Shakespeare Library timed the run of this play well, knowing that its 415-year-old message is relevant today. It opened October 28, just a few days shy of the midterm elections, when campaigning was at a feverish high. The play reminds us that public opinion is still disturbingly fickle, and even intelligent statesmen are easily influenced by passionate speeches.
Director Robert Richmond eagerly wrestles with the questions Julius Caesar presents, just as he did with Richard III and Henry V, his previous directorial efforts for Folger. “Are Brutus and Cassius ‘the men who gave their country liberty’?” he asks in his director’s notes. “And, more importantly, what is the cost of that liberty?”
Consequently, Richmond’s version of Julius Caesar is awash in shades of gray. The set and costumes are drab—Portia’s and Calpurnia’s purple dresses are the only color in sight—underscoring the fact that this play has no real hero, only men who are motivated solely by their own ambitions. Even Brutus (Anthony Cochrane) is blind and foolish. He’s so caught up in being Rome’s savior that he never once questions the convenient timing of the anti-Caesar propaganda that arrives at his doorstep, on the eve of the famous “ides of March.”
There was one aesthetic choice, however, that seemed a little jarring and out of place. While the other outfits belonged to no specific time or place in history, the battle scenes featured WWI–era gas masks, helmets, and overcoats. Richmond explains this choice somewhat in his director’s notes; he says that he noticed the commemorations of WWI’s centennial while on a trip to the UK this past summer, and how clearly they showed “the cost of war.” Nevertheless, while watching the play, I found myself thinking more about why he chose those particular costumes than focusing on the actual scenes. They were more of a distraction than a helpful illustration of the cost of war.
Still, one of the most disquieting scenes in the play is one that needs no historical context. When Mark Antony—played expertly by Maurice Jones—easily sways the crowd against Brutus and Cassius (Louis Butelli), he displays all the charisma and disingenuousness of a modern politician. Same for Brutus, who only moments before had the crowd calling for him to be crowned king (the very reason he agreed to help kill Caesar, whom the public initially wanted to be king). Julius Caesar shows us that, whether in ancient Rome, Elizabethan England, or now, whoever has the last word also has the public support. Happy election day, everyone!
Julius Caesar runs through December 7. Get tickets here.