Briefly playing in New York as part of the 2011 Lincoln Center Festival, The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Julius Caesar is an energetic version that emphasizes mise en scene rather than the text, and thus emphasizes the outsize political consequences of political power struggles. Personally, I prefer emphasis on language to spectacle, but spectacle is done very well here.

I enjoyed this production immensely, because its successful moments were solid and its weaker aspects, as I see them, are both consonant with the director’s apparent intentions and interesting to those of us who want to learn something about theatre from every production.

Charles Isherwood rightly calls the production “operatic” and “relentlessly turbulent” in his New York Times Review. Director Lucy Bailey and William Dudley, the set and video designer, do not leave the gathering and clashing armies to our imaginations.

William Dudley’s videos, especially looped crowd scenes and Roman cityscapes engulfed in flames, are constant, effective reminders that the characters are small and the world outside is large. This seems very effective at supporting the director’s political emphasis, suggesting that the most fearsome potency lies in barely controllable Roman mobs, not in the characters.

This production rivals Broadway for sheer scale, elaborate setting, large cast, and emphasis on spectacle. In short, for cost. Whatever quibbles an audience member might have about aspects of this production, we are comforted by the idea that all of the cost went to support a worthy script, not Spiderman.

Expensive productions even by The Royal Shakespeare Company might end soon, as the UK dramatically cuts arts and other spending. The UK is moving away from the European model of serious state arts support to the American model, far more dependent on box-office sales and the frugality of  two-character scripts and monodramas.

Most great and affecting theatre is about the uneasy interplay of character, ideology, and events. Ideology might be too strong a word, but central characters have belief systems that are essential to their functioning and are often agents of their destruction, like Willy Loman’s notions of fairness and dignity.

For the Greeks, those external events are more often matters of fate and the gods’ poking sticks about, and for Shakespeare those external events are usually about political power. Either way, theater at its best considers who we are and what we believe, and why much of that is illusory.

This threesome of character, belief, and events lacks the stability of a three-legged stool, and is instead as inherently unstable as a three toddler play date.

That instability, the vulnerability of character and belief when stuff happens, underlies the greatest plays ever written. Its faint, etiolated shadow can usually be sensed even in the most trivial television sitcoms.

The costumes of the early scenes in this production puzzled me, and seemed too effeminate for the play, but by the end of the play that made sense. By the end of the play all of the characters were in brutish combat gear, looking nearly black with filth and sporting mismatched leather belts and pads. The descent from political debate to large scale physical savagery was emphasized.

Similarly I was at first a little discomforted by the fact that the actors were not physically imposing and seemed to lack gravitas, even Brutus. Caesar made his fatal decision to go to the senate with more camp affect than seemed appropriate. No one but Mark Anthony looked ready for a bar fight, let alone a military campaign.

But those effects properly underscore the play’s suggestion that events are big, men are small.  The most thoughtlessly dangerous conspirator, Casca, was wonderfully cast: Oliver Ryan demonstrated the frenetic danger of a physically slight and intellectually uninterested man who is eager for violence, underscoring the production’s apparent point.

Seeing and hearing this production while America’s debt ceiling theatre farce was playing its closing scenes in Washington, I looked hard for parallels. I found parallels not in the bad acting and bad lines of dueling politicians, but elsewhere in America, in gun rights advocates’ posturing call for resistance and the Tea Party’s vainglorious recital of Thomas Jefferson’s “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots.”

Small minds with no sense of unintended consequences and with noble intentions, like the conspirators in Julius Caesar, can bring ruin. The Royal Shakespeare Company has done well to bring us theatre with ideas in the production as well as in the text, and New York was lucky to have them with us.

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