Like Hemingway’s profound narrative on the destructive perplexity of war, or like Kubrick’s cinematic interpretations of subconscious struggle, Shakespeare’s tragedies possess an infinite relevance that will always characterize some portion of the human condition. Indeed, so long as individuals experience the dismay of death or the anguish of stifled romance, Shakespeare’s verse will continue to find a presence among stages and English curricula around the world. Many contemporary performances of his plays, while retaining the same lines and structure, adapt the work to a more modern setting; one notable example of this practice is Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, a splendid cross between sixteenth century and twentieth century 90’s culture. This is precisely the route that director Christian Brickhouse ’17 followed in Risley Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar. Rather than being left to unfold in the ancient and grand obscurity of the Roman Empire, this iteration of Julius Caesar is set in the United States during the year 1919. In this world, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution is on track to be passed. As is mentioned in the production notes, activists of women’s suffrage may be symbolized by the conspirators and their actions, and Caesar’s actual assassination represents the passage of the amendment. However, the metaphor continues; in maintaining historical integrity, the strife faced by Caesar’s conspirators is intended to represent the struggle of minority women to gain voting rights in the decades after the Nineteenth Amendment’s implementation. The tragic nature of the play’s ending is indicative of the tribulations women still must endure for true gender equality.
This resetting of Julius Caesar attains nothing short of theatrical elegance and originality. On a micro-scale, the women’s suffrage movement is incredibly fitting to the tragedy – including its plot, characters, and existing themes. Cassius, the instigator of Caesar’s assassination, may be thought of as the most radical suffragists, misunderstood by many despite acting on a number of complex and formative motivations. Brutus, noble and patriotic, represents a subtle class of women unsure of their belief in or desire for suffrage prior to the Nineteenth Amendment. Although he takes part in the assassination, he ultimately wishes to reconcile his actions with what is best for Rome or, in the case of this metaphor, the United States. Caesar, and his flawed assertions of immortality on the Ides of March indicate the shortsighted ability of hollow government reform to incite change or authentically echo public spirit. Both men and women held “anti-suffrage” beliefs, and such individuals may be represented by Caesar’s triumvirate. Mark Antony delivers his powerfully rhetorical speech upon Caesar’s death, swaying public opinion against his murder. This instigated shift of approval perhaps symbolizes the fear of change exhibited during the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, or during any other moment of social change or progress. To interpret the fall of Caesar and its surrounding nuances as not only a singular death per se but as broader historical phenomenon significantly bolsters the poignancy and relevance of the work. The American Progressive Era of the early twentieth century certainly offers a complex frame of social turbulence apt for the setting of Julius Caesar. However, similar metaphorical interpretations of the tragedy may be brought to life within different time periods, such as the Reconstructive emancipation of slaves in the nineteenth century, or the global revolutions of the 1960s.
Brickhouse’s production soundly brings to life this Progressive Era adaptation of Julius Caesar. The three most pivotal characters were performed vividly and with Shakespearean authenticity. Alexander ter Weele ’16, who played Caesar, accurately portrayed the figure with the nobility and naiveté that would be expected of a newly exalted and idealized ruler. Nathan Chazan ’19 made a compelling appearance in the role of Cassius. He animates the character’s tragic, rationalizing fervor and vigorous resentment of Caesar’s newly gained power. His portrayal indeed brings to mind the dominant spirit of well-known Shakespeare performances, perhaps like Olivier in the role of Richard III. Furthermore, Angaelica LaPasta’s ’19 Brutus was delivered with the character’s signature honor and loyalty; in each monologue and soliloquy, one witnesses the internal conflict facing the torn general as he must choose between the good of Rome or Caesar’s life. Among a strong supporting cast is Patricia Mawn-Mahlau ’18 in the role of Mark Antony. Her delivery of the speech at Caesar’s funeral is convincing as it surpasses audience expectations of such a memorable and oft-quoted moment in the tragedy. The costumes are reminiscent of pre-1920s American fashion, and the set is modest and equally fitting of the time period. Brickhouse’s direction takes complete advantage of the intimate setting offered by Risley Theatre.
Risley Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar is certainly a rare commodity in the vast collection of Shakespeare performances. Its adaptation of the tragedy, setting it during the dense Progressive Era of the early twentieth century is highly creative and indicative of the timeless nature of Shakespeare’s work. Upon the ending of the final scene of Risley’s Julius Caesar, one is reminded of the gender inequality that still plagues the United States, a powerful and conclusive call-to-action of the type that exists in only the greatest and most compelling works of art.
Julius Caesar will play at Risley Theatre on March 18 and 19.
Nick Swan is a freshman in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]