Beware the Ides of March, or Julie, Don’t Go!
Director Scott Wentworth has given us a new Julius Caesar for our consideration. Stratford favourite Seana McKenna is taking on the male role, and certainly doing it justice. Other women are also in the lead roles, playing the parts of men. After the first few minutes, their gender is forgotten as the plot takes hold.
Julius Caesar returns to Rome triumphant after defeating his rival. He is welcomed by the crowds, which immediately makes him self-important, especially when his friend Mark Antony offers him a crown. Caesar’s haughtiness worries the Roman Senators, who conspire to kill him before he becomes a dictator. Brutus is torn between working with the Senators, or defending his friend Caesar. But then he joins the conspiracy, adds his knife to the many in Caesar’s back, and bathes his hands in Caesar’s blood. Mark Antony gives a carefully worded speech to sway the crowds away from Brutus. Eventually Brutus is defeated and kills himself on his own sword.
McKenna is a perfect Caesar. She has his swagger and arrogance as he surveys the adoring throngs. Michelle Giroux as Mark Antony delivers the well-known speech, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” in an understated way that causes the crowds to listen. Giroux is convincing as the crafty Mark Antony, manipulating the crowd with his carefully chosen words.
Jonathan Goad is a very compelling Brutus. He may seem a little out of place with the others, and not because he is a man among female leads. It is more because of the way he speaks. He has the ability to say the Elizabethan words and make them sound like modern English, a special talent which I appreciate very much. But the other characters speak with the cadence of Shakespeare’s English, making Goad’s speeches stand out.
As well as the female cast, there are two other things that make this production unusual. One is the slow-motion battle. While I usually like to watch a well-staged, high-speed combat, it is fascinating to see the opposing armies swing their lances and spears in slow motion.
Costumes are a strange mix of Elizabethan in the traditional Shakespearean style, mixed with the Roman style in the era of Julius Caesar. So you see a flowing toga or cape, overtop of the puffy, short, pumpkin pants, and tucked under a ruffled Elizabethan collar. I can only assume this is an attempt to show us what might have been worn the first time Julius Caesar was presented.
It is certainly worth the trip to Stratford to see a new Julius Caesar: if you’re a regular attendee or a Shakespeare fan, you will be fascinated by this take with its various tweaks.
Finally, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to say that I sometimes have a difficult time with Julius Caesar. It always reminds me of the sketch by Wayne & Shuster, which was called “Wash the Blood off my Toga”. (Available on YouTube, if you’re interested.) But it was probably better known as “I told him, ‘Julie, don’t go’”. It was 60 years ago that this sketch by proud Canadians Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York and was broadcast all over North America. Sylvia Lennick played the part of Calpurnia, who told her hubby, Julius Caesar, not to go to the forum. Wayne was Flavius, the Private Roman Eye, tasked with solving Caesar’s assassination, and Shuster was Brutus, who turned out to be the murderer. I was just a wee toddler at that time, so I must have seen this sketch on subsequent Wayne & Shuster Hours on CBC. But that is where I definitely first learned the story of Julius Caesar, including all the catch phrases such as “Julie, don’t go”. Julius Caesar is filled with sayings and clichés that we still use today. When they come up in a Stratford production, I still hear Johnny Wayne’s voice. Good memories, but not what Shakespeare envisioned. (An aside – I also learned about Dorian Gray and The Scarlet Pimpernel (or as they called it, The Brown Pumpernickel) from Wayne & Shuster!)
Julius Caesar continues in repertory until October 27 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford. Tickets are available at the Stratford Festival at 1-800-567-1600, or check www.stratfordfestival.ca
Photo: Left: Jonathan Goad as Marcus Brutus, and company. Right: Seana McKenna as Julius Caesar. Photos by David Hou.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Scott Wentworth
Performed by Seanna McKenna, Sophia Walker, Michelle Giroux, Marion Adler, Jonathan Goad, Irene Poole, et al.
Produced by Stratford Festival
Festival Theatre, Stratford
July 31 to October 27, 2018
Reviewed by Mary Alderson