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Lucy Bailey’s Julius Caesar: Panic and Hysteria1

Royal Shakespeare Company, 2009. The Courtyard Theatre. July-September 2009. 3h.

frPublié en ligne le 28 janvier 2010

1Thus Lucy Bailey defines her directorial choice and the overall atmosphere of her production in the programme to this season RSC Julius Caesar.  The choice of violent hysteria, the atmosphere of a civil war ready to start, the curse of a city predicated on fratricide, the confrontation of tyrants and tyrannicides, these are the main themes Bailey puts forward in this strange production.

2Bailey’s Julius Caesar is more of a workshop exploration than an actual production. After her acclaimed Titus Andronicus, staged last season at the Globe Theatre, Bailey returns with another Roman play she seems to consider as a natural follow-up to her previous Roman production3. Hence, the accent is resolutely put on a neo-classical approach envisaged through an expressionist lens.

3The Antique influence permeates the aesthetics of the production as the screens at the back of the stage feature projections of shadows of bodies, recalling black-figure and red-figure pottery, and as ancient ritual codes re-emerge at key moments of the play. Hence Caesar’s funeral echoes Aeschylus’ Choephoroe or The Mourners with the crowd of contorting bodies yelling while gathered around Caesar’s maimed body. Similarly, Cinna’s murder is a direct borrowing from Euripides’ The Bacchae and shows a violent dismemberment of the innocent poet, scalped, choked and stabbed by plebeian furies.

4However Bailey’s focus on the classical essence of the theme plot seems to jeopardise most of the political argument of Shakespeare’s play. Caesar, Brutus and Marc Antony are sometimes pretexts for a Fellinian experience of life in Ancient Rome rather than fictional loci for a more subtle political debate. Greg Hicks’ Caesar is a powerful portrayal of soldierly arrogance generating an erotic fascination for the tense body of the potential tyrant. Nevertheless, his rare stage appearances and the ever-changing performing style (from bragging soldier to enigmatic shaolin ghost) are too confusing to generate a bond with the audience. Bailey has clearly underused the magnetic potential of her lead actor and preferred creating this dangerously fluctuating image of the unsteady ruler. This hesitation is all the more striking in Sam Troughton’s Brutus whose constant hesitation and fragility pay a fair tribute to Brutus’ difficult choice of a parricide as well as a tyrannicide. Brutus is here a stage echo of contemporary politicians lost in the grey zone of pragmatic real politick. He thus fails to emerge as a passionate advocate of a free Republic and is portrayed as the hapless toy of his and others’ desires. As for Marc Antony (Darrell D’silva), he is reduced to a vomiting drunk or a ruthless soldier, and lacks the necessary political charisma to fully convince he can manipulate a crowd.

5Bailey’s production cannot be deemed to be an unsatisfying enterprise if we accept to follow the director’s choice of “creating an expressionistic gestural world to capture the panic and hysteria that is unleashed in the play4”. When the spectators were lucky enough to be seated in the galleries, they were offered a radically different show than those seated in the stalls. In that Bailey’s production failed as the groundlings were left with half the show and an excessively expressionistic choreography that became irrelevant without its full iconic scenography only visible from the galleries (i.e. the projections of images on the stage floor and the use of coloured petals as impressionistic devices creating a significant tableau).

6Dwelling on specific aspects of Bailey’s production, this review wishes to illustrate her reading of Julius Caesar as a hysterical ritual through a focus on the visual and aural plasticity of the production and the sometimes unexpected cathartic excessive representations of tyrants, murderers and revengers.

The Choric Dumb-show or the Iconicity of Bailey’s Vision

7Before the actual performance starts, Bailey inserted a choric interlude recalling the bloody deeds that founded Rome. Two actors wearing loincloths covered in dirt and blood, and impersonating Romulus and Remus, crawl on the stage. Upstage, the back wall is split in two: a large rectangular cinema screen dividing the perspective and a row of six revolving panels replacing the tiring-house wall. The cinema screen is further at the back than the panels and the stage is given with a Medieval screen-like structure. The hybridisation of the stage – cinematic devices, ancient drama, medieval scenography of hall performances, and the Elizabethan protruding stage – turns Bailey’s Rome into this unsteady extemporal space of the crisis.

8The screen projects a picture of the Roman she-wolf with the twins superimposed on a dark blood red background. Such a device as a chromatic foreboding of the tragedy and brings together the dramatic convention of the chorus and the movie trailer technique of the pictorial summary. This symbolic illustration of the tragic plot merges different visual effects and seems to act as a comprehensive history of the oblique choric effect. Drama, painting, dance and cinema come together on the stage in this attempt to bring ancient Rome back to life in the shape of a bacchanal of aesthetic means.

9The back of the stage seems to be cut in half between the video screen and the revolving screens. Thus the frontal perspective materializes the tragic flaw and the subsequent ruptures featured in the play. Bailey translates dramatic conventions into more contemporary visual devices: the logo technique of the movie trailer and the sound effects (crickets, hissing winds) recall the possible painted backcloths and the ornamental musical effects of tragedies; the choreography of Romulus and Remus borrows from ritual ceremonies and contemporary dance.

10This choric dumbshow synthesizes the Tragedy of Julius Caesar and portrays Rome as a place of bloody fratricide. First Romulus and Remus silently run around one another, then they kneel side by side, one puts his arm over the other’s shoulder, a wolf howling is heard in the distance and the twins resume their fights, making dog noises. The actual play’s performance begins, the audience is now fully plunged in the dark, but the dumbshow carries on for a few minutes until Romulus kills Remus by biting his throat off. The spasmodic movements of Remus’ body amplify, then slowly decrease only to leave a corpse on which a rain of red petals fall. This visual prophecy of Caesar’s bloody wounds is accompanied by a projection of crawling figures on the stage floor, only visible from the galleries. Remus’ body disappears in this virtual sea of bodies of light while the red petals keep falling turning the stage into a thousand deaths torture space.

11Actors enter the stage and start crawling on the floor as well while wolf-like guardians whip them mercilessly. The female bodies twist and curb in fear and in pain. The music grows carnivalesque and is saturated with hypnotic drums. The plebeians are ordered around by a man, Cassius, who tries to turn them. The petals are still falling and Caesar’s announced triumph is irremediably associated with this ominous fluttering redness.  Simultaneously, there are projections of a cheering crowd on the semi-transparent revolving screens. These bodies of light similar to those projected on the floor give the illusion of a hologram crowd peopling the upper part of the stage.

12The petals carry on falling dimly, subtly transforming the stage floor into a disturbing blood-splattered surface as the conspirers enter the stage and turn the frenzied celebration into treason, followed by the soothsayer as a voodoo priest with his clattering dreadlocks. The stage is set for a doomed Caesar to appear. And the spectators are given an unusual Caesar: physical, energetic, fearlessly arrogant. Greg Hicks’ body language is that of a proud warrior challenging death and his enemies through every move. Productions usually portray Caesar more as an ageing politician than as the epitome of the warrior. Bailey opts for a representation of physical strength and blind bravery. Caesar’s potential tyranny is expressed through the threatening physicality of Hick’s performance.

Caesar & Brutus: Exuberant Tyrant versus Hesitant Tyrannicide

13However, such strength can hardly be seen as an actual danger and a reason for a tyrannicide when we confront it to Sam Troughton’s Brutus. Once Calpurnia and Caesar leave the stage after meeting the Soothsayer, Brutus is left onstage. He is dressed as a noble Roman, in white, but he does not embody political virtue or ideals. Standing on the right hand-side of the stage, Troughton plays Brutus as a tortured man who has become the prey of Cassius’ spiderlike seduction.  Their very positioning onstage is the founding feature of the portrayal of Brutus as a weak marginal man. Brutus is a character who is literally on the edge while Cassius is patiently standing centre stage and manipulates him.

14Gradually Brutus gets closer to Cassius who acts as a spider at the centre of a web, quietly waiting for its prey to willingly trap itself. The choreographic choice here is fraught with meaning and effective. The circles and the meanders Brutus draws around a subtly moving Cassius design a labyrinthine trajectory that is bound to be the death of Brutus. The latter is the unwilling designer of this dangerous maze as Cassius acts as the actual stage director, curbing Brutus’ will through this self-sacrificial amble. Bailey pushes both actors into a performance of the erotics of fascination: Brutus keeps his right arm tightly folded on his chest, while his other hand is dangling, helpless and waiting to be taken. This duality in Troughton’s body language translates the character’s hesitation: the loyalty of the Roman senator to Caesar, the concern of that same senator of Rome for the city’s welfare and liberty and its capacity to be led into tyrannicide.

The Phantasma: a Production between Nightmare and Wake

15This liminal nature of Troughton’s performance perfectly illustrates both the orientation and the weakness of this production. Focusing on Brutus’ inner conflict regarding Caesar’s necessary ordeal through a polymorphic staging can be seen as both a failure and a success. The character of Brutus is suddenly endowed with a new, more touching depth, but it also dissolves the rest of the cast and the rest of the play as pure ornamentation. Indeed, Brutus’ hesitations plunge the play into an in-between characterised by the impact of the dream scenes on the whole production. Bailey’s production is a phantasma, a play hesitating between dream and action. It is more the tragedy of Brutus than a debate on loyalty, treason and regicide. Marc Antony’s part is drastically reduced to anecdotal flourish. The best scenes are concentrated in the first part of the production and in the dream scenes. The latter reveal the real shape of Bailey’s production. As rituals, dreams are characterised by liminality and symbolic expressivity as seen in the following key moments: Caesar’s dream, Brutus’s wake at home before the conspirers arrive, Caesar’s murder and Brutus’s dream and suicide.

16The aesthetic of these scenes is based on a radical change in lighting, in colours and sound effects. For instance, Brutus’ anxious wake before Caesar’s murder is characterised by Brutus at home: the bluish lights reinforced by the projection of the moonlight on the video screen and reflected onstage by Brutus’ white garb with grey stripes. Again Brutus and Rome’s uneasiness is illustrated chromatically. The choice of neutral yet uncertain colours, coupled with incessant lightning and thunder punctuating the performance, helps building this atmosphere of acute anxiety. Brutus and his home are visually trapped between the conspirers’ black robes and Caesar’s imperial white and purple.

17This liminality even contaminates Caesar, despite Hick’s choice of a cheeky portrayal of the imperator. Before his visit to the Senate, he also dreams and the video screen projects a pool of dark water. The water could be that of the Lethe or that of the Styx, or announcing the pool of dark blood coming out of his maimed body during the endless ordeal at the Senate.

18This choice of an aestheticised nightmare tends to be the most efficient outcome of the production and culminates in Brutus’ final delirious wake and nightmare. Before the battle at Philippi, Brutus is lulled into a restless sleep by Lucius’ lute and litany. He is first visited by Portia’s ghost who, moving to a slightly oriental litany, points at his guilt. When he wakes up in terror, Lucius has now fallen asleep and Brutus seems again to be the prey of his anxious wake. Here Bailey introduces a new dimension to the ghost scene. Caesar’s bloody ghost enters, led by Calpurnia in black. As she leaves, the ghost walks towards Brutus and points his finger at him, cursing him in a cathedral voice. Brutus’ terror awakes Lucius and the sleepy guards, and the action cascades into a frenzy succession of movements resulting in Brutus’ suicide. However, as Brutus is running onto his soldier’s sword, the audience understands that the nightmare has permeated the wake: Caesar’s ghost, sword in hand, moving with a gracious fierceness, cuts Brutus’ trajectory and cuts the thread of his life. Brutus has become the ultimate prey of the phantasma, of this mix of desire and imagination, of dream and wake, of obedience and tyrannicide.

19Although interesting as far as its scenographic and choreographic choices are concerned, Bailey’s production seems to miss what James Shapiro identified as “a deepening of Shakespeare’s interest in English political concerns5”. The danger of the defacing of a royal portrait or image is exploited and exemplified in the implicit or explicit plasticity of this stage production. However, the political questioning is petrified by the excessive expressionism of the production. The choice of total theatre to stage Julius Caesar as a Saturnalia is an interesting strategy as well as a dangerous one. The variety of symbolic scenographic and choreographic devices traps the production in a two-dimensional perspective. The influence of the Elgin Marbles and Trajan’s column, as well as that of graphic novels, newsreel effects and modernist representations of the body, is sometimes at odds with the essence of drama. The excessive referentiality of the production numbs the carnivalesque frenzy very early in the production and hides some of the central issues of the play.

Notes

1 Creative: Director Lucy Bailey. Set Designer William Dudley. Associate Designer Nathalie Maury. Costume Designer Fotini Dimou. Lighting Designer Oliver Fenwick. Composer Django Bates. Assistant Composer Tim Adnitt. Sound Designer Fergus O'hare. Video. Designer Alan Cox. Movement Director Sarah Dowling. Fight Director Philip D'orleans.
Cast: Joseph Arkley: Remus. Adam Burton: Cimber. Brian Doherty: Decius Brutus. Darrell D’silva: Mark Antony. Noma Dumezweni: Calphurnia. Phillip Edgerley: Flavius. James Gale: Cicero. Gruffudd Glyn: Cinna The Conspirator. Paul Hamilton: Caius Ligarius. Greg Hicks: Julius Caesar. Tunji Kasim: Romulus. John Mackay: Cassius. Patrick Romer: Murullus. David Rubin: Trebonius. Oliver Ryan: Casca. Sam Troughton: Marcus Brutus. Simone Saunders: Calphurnia's Servant. Larrington Walker: Soothsayer. Kirsty Woodward: Priestess. Hannah Young: Portia. Samantha Young: Soothsayer's AcolyteProduction images: http://www.rsc.org.uk/whatson/8485.aspx.
Productions videos:
http://www.rsc.org.uk/explore/workspace/caesar_4500.htm  

2  Lucy Bailey, Julius Caesar, RSC Program.

3  Lucy Bailey studied English at Oxford University where she directed the world premiere of Lessness by Samuel Beckett in consultation with the author. She then worked as an assistant director at the Royal National Theatre, Glyndebourne Opera and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Opera and music theatre includes: Threepenny Opera(Scottish Opera); adaptation of Pasolini’s Teorema (Maggio Musicale Florence/Munich Bienale/Queen Elizabeth Hall); Maid in Arms, Four Figures with Harlequin (Royal Opera House); Jenufa (English National Opera). Lucy co-founded the gogmagogs with the violinist Nell Catchpole, comprised of seven young string players. She has devised and directed seven shows for the company which have performed at various theatres in London and toured throughout the UK and internationally. In 1999 Lucy adapted and directed the first British stage version of Tennessee Williams’ screen play Baby Doll, which opened at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, transferred to the National Theatre and then to the Albery Theatre in the West End. Recent theatre includes: Timon of Athens (Shakespeare’s Globe), Lady from the Sea (Birmingham Repertory Theatre), Titus Andronicus(Shakespeare’s Globe); A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night (Manchester’s Royal Exchange); The Night Season(National Theatre); The Postman Always Rings Twice(West Yorkshire Playhouse/West End starring Val Kilmer).

4  Lucy Bailey, op. cit.

5  James Shapiro, RSC Programme for Julius Caesar.

Pour citer cet article

Nathalie RIVÈRE DE CARLES (2010). "Lucy Bailey’s Julius Caesar: Panic and Hysteria". Shakespeare en devenir - Les Cahiers de La Licorne - L'Oeil du Spectateur | Mise en scène de pièces de Shakespeare | N°2 - Saison 2009-2010.

[En ligne] Publié en ligne le 28 janvier 2010.

URL : http://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr/index.php?id=186

Consulté le 21/09/2017.

A propos des auteurs

Nathalie RIVÈRE DE CARLES

Nathalie Rivère de Carles est Maître de Conférences en Études de la Renaissance à l’Université de Toulouse Le Mirail. Intéressée par les questions de mises en espace et l’histoire matérielle, elle a publié plusieurs comptes rendus critiques de pièces pour Les Cahiers Élisabéthains et The Shakespeare Bulletin. En outre, elle a participé aux volumes sur Le Théâtre Elisabéthain dans la Pléiade (octobre 2009) et a publié plusieurs articles sur la scénographie renaissante et les liens avec les arts et la mythologie.The Lupercal festival which opens the play is a fertility festival, which has its roots in the legend of Romulus and Remus and the violent birth of Rome. As the story goes, these twins, who according to legend were raised by a she-wolf, fought each other to the death over a piece of land. For me this became the key to this piece: Rome was founded in bloodshed2

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