Brutus seems so much cleverer than Cassius in 11:11 Productions’ Julius Caesar. Perhaps I just assumed this because of the way Vangelis Christodoulou plays him, with an air of silent, Stoic wisdom. But the effect was distinctive, nonetheless, given that in other performances of the play Brutus tends to be somewhat naive, relying on his deeply-pondering friend to guide him to power, allowing himself to be manipulated by Cassius not a little on the way. Christodoulou seems so much more at peace with events than Adam Elms’ wordy, nervous, believable, Cassius, to the extent where I wondered why this Brutus needed any co-conspirators at all.
This interesting dynamic begins what is in many ways a refreshing Julius Caesar, clever, thoughtful, and well-executed, pocketed with moments of insight. Calphurnia (Charlotte Gascoyne) and Portia (Kellie Jane Walters) meet twice to embrace and console each other, something I have never seen happen before, and which provided an agreeable (though often absent) sense that, yes, these two women could autonomously be friends even though their husbands are enemies. Max Warrick’s Lucius displays a logical lack of the craven obedience usually associated with this role.
When they meet in the garden in the early hours, Portia and Brutus have a genuine argument like a real couple grappling with dysfunctional communication (the kind you might hear at 3am just outside in Peckham begging each other to ‘just let me in’), instead of pacing around each other nobly making pronouncements. As he falls to his knees, dying, Caesar genuinely thinks Brutus is coming to help him rather than finish him off, making the line ‘et tu, Brute’ poignant in a way that (despite its seeming intrinsic power on the page and its fame as a dramatic fragment) is so rare.
Best of all, the soothsayer, usually a bit of a wildcard role who sits a bit oddly with the rest of the cast, is none other than Caesar’s wife Calphurnia, prone to dissociative episodes where she stares and prophesies By having Calphurnia show no awareness of her supernatural powers, Gascoyne lends plausibility to the differences in character between Calphurnia and the Soothsayer. This particularly transparent form of doubling also provides a clever way of accounting for the strength of Calphurnia’s desire to prevent Caesar from going to the Capitol – surely some of the dreams she had whilst soothsaying unconsciously motivate her earnest suggestion that he stays at home. Calphurnia falling back and gazing beyond the veil is responsible for most of the uncanny feelings in the play; overall this production simply didn’t feel spooky, or deliver the claustrophobic atmosphere of fear the flyer promised.
What is most noticeable about Samuel Woods’ textually condensed production, aside from its black and white colour scheme and the way it is rounded by beautiful chanting, is his decision to have the cast onstage almost constantly. Instead of exiting completely when the text calls for it, characters simply go to sit in ranks of chairs just behind the action. This lends the production a strong sense of determinism: though everyone sees everything, none of the characters intervene or stop events from unfolding in the way Shakespeare wrote them. Caesar, for instance, sits and intently watches the conspirators plotting to kill him at the Capitol, yet when his cue prompts him, stands up and goes to the Capitol anyway. He delivers his line ‘are we all ready?’ almost as if he is chivvying the conspirators up to get on with playing the part of murderers – he has accepted his fate and just wants to get it over with. ‘Are we all ready?’ doesn’t often get much weight in the play and it was nice to hear it spoken like this.
After Caesar’s death, the tension sagged a little. Antony’s assertions that he is ‘a plain, blunt man’ are surely supposed to be ironic: Antony is assuming the guise of a ‘plain man’ to enable his real rhetorical cunning. The bellowing Antony in this production really was nothing more than a plain, blunt man, and the play lost some texture as a result. Though one really can be forgiven for shouting over the stock heckling of the townspeople, in one of the least enjoyable crowd scenes in Shakespeare (though I did enjoy the women crying tears of happiness over Caesar’s will, not unlike those ambiguous tears shed for Kim Jong-il), and the rattling beats seeping up from the basement of the Bussey building.