Julius Caesar was a high-stakes venture for Shakespeare. He had invested heavily in the new Globe Theatre, and this was its opener in 1599. Shareholder, playwright, actor . . here was the collision of business and art in one man. The business-savvy Bard would have been nervous as the first customers arrived. With its smell of freshly sawed wood and whitewash, those entering the Globe were testing an untried hi-tech virtual reality environment. With London reverberating with globalisation and scientific revolution, here among the groundlings one was at the very peak of modernity.
So what was the focus of this 4D sensurround - this leap into the unknown? The downfall of dictators. The first drums resounding around the Globe introduced the themes of power, order, revolution and chaos to the Elizabethan masses. Shakespeare had a knack of identifying themes that would forever remain current, and Julius Caesar speaks volumes to us in this age of political disenchantment. One of the most macabre but accurate pronouncements on political change is Jacques Mallet du Pan's statement "a revolution devours its children." Looking back on the fall of the Berlin wall, and the prematurely named Arab Spring, we see a horrible pattern, as though carved in stone: the stagnation of rule; the toppling of the tyrant; the chaotic aftermath; and the reestablishment of order through tyranny 2.0.
Shakespeare understood this.
The play examines these stages with great insight, showing Cassius steering alpha male Brutus to spearhead the toppling of a burned-out Caesar. In this production, Cassius was played by Anthony Howell (of Foyle's War), who portrayed him less as a thin skinned Iago, and more like the bluff soldier he probably was. Tom McKay's Brutus was a well-adjusted, well-meaning man whose political and moral certainties break down in his failed attempt at justifying what he has done. I hope Tony Blair doesn't go to see this production, as parallels with his noble crusading would be obvious to all around him.
Initially, I was irritated by George Irving's insipid portrayal of Caesar, but then I realised that this was the point. Caesar was 56 and a husk of the man he once was. Referring to himself in the third person (even to his wife), Caesar believes in his own greatness and infallibility; and his once brilliant mind has now become blurred and paranoiac. Here then, we have Saddam, Gaddafi, Ben Ali . . . Caesar is all rulers who have lost the plot. His despotic apotheosis encompasses them all.
With these major themes being shouldered by key characters, it is amazing how Shakespeare rendered them human and sympathetic - all except the morphined Caesar. Christopher Logan camped up Casca beautifully, rendering a waspish survivor in dangerous tides. Luke Thompson highlighted Mark Antony's humane greatness - in contrast to the lovestruck middle aged has-been he is to be in the sequel, Antony and Cleopatra.
As I was watching the play, I was immediately struck by the playing of Caesar's wife, Calpurnia. I focused in, and realised that here was one of my favourite actresses, Katy Stephens. I last saw Ms Stephens as an unforgettable Tamora in Michael Fentiman's production of Titus Andronicus at the RSC. And here she was now as Calpurnia, pleading with the vague, bloated Caesar to stay away from politics for a day. Katy Stephens is a superb actress who brings roles to life with insight and wit. Later in the play, she reappeared as a pleb ringleader who tore off the genitals of the mild poet, Cinna. You don't mess with Katy Stephens.
From the off, this production was fresh, invigorating and had great momentum. This owes much to Dominic Dromgoole's energetic direction, and the overall play was greater than the individual parts - a true ensemble production.
As I left, with my hands glowing, I thought of that original audience at its first showing, walking towards the Thames and muttering about what they had seen. Did it make them think of the declining Elizabeth? Did they feel anxious about order breaking down into chaos? Among them, Shakespeare himself would have drifted, and listened, and, no doubt heaved a huge sigh of relief. The first show at the Globe was over, his investments were safe, and his message to the world was out. Revolutions eat their children. If only Tony Blair had listened.