Julius Caesar by Théâtre National de Bretagne

Today we look back at Théâtre National de Bretagne’s unusual production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. We at CatSynth had the opportunity to see it at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, California a couple of weeks ago.

It is a play we know well, having read the original and recently revisited Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s epic 1953 film version starring Marlon Brando, James Mason, and John Gielgud. In contrast to that version which places the play in a grand realization of ancient Rome with large sets and hundreds of extras, this production directed by Arthur Nauzyciel with set design Scott Zielinski, was abstract and spare: a mostly empty stage surrounded by a backdrop of empty theater seats. The cast was stripped down to a small set of players, some pulling multiple roles – both Portia and Calpurnia were played by Sara Kathryn Bakker, for example. Their costumes (by James Schuette) were inspired by the 1960s, as were the furniture. We see the characters as mostly upper-class individuals in suits and dresses in spare rooms with modernist furniture, something directly out of Mad Men. We first see Brutus (James Waterson), Cassius (Mark Montgomery), and Julius Caesar (Dylan Kyussman) in simple tuxedos, with Mark Antony (Daniel Pettrow) bounding in wearing an Adidas tracksuit – a nice touch that harkened back to Brando’s jockish first scene as Antony in the 1953 film. One cannot consider these things anachronistic, seeing as how the Shakespeare play in itself is an anachronism, with its mentioning of clocks, doublets, etc., not to leave out the fact that it was written and generally performed in English.  The drama is what is most important in the play, the interaction of the characters, and the mechanics of politics and public opinion. 

Theatre is fundamentally about illusion and representation.  Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, in older forms of theatre, minimalism accentuates the essence of what a dramatic piece is trying to convey.  All of the information is conveyed through the words and actions, with the dressing secondary.  As I believe it should be with Shakespeare.  So I felt the right tone was taken with the way the visual aspect was handled.

Sara Kathryn Bakker as Portia. Photo by Frédéric Nauczyciel.

Of course, the central element of such a play is the acting and interpretation of the text. Kyussman’s portrayal of Caesar brought the right mixture of pomp and gravitas to his character.  Waterson’s Brutus came across as conflicted in his feelings, ultimately choosing reason over loyalty. And Montgomery’s Cassius was a thoughtful but odd fellow. Bakker’s double-duty as Portia and Calpurnia was beautifully played but also served to highlight the overall lack of women characters in the play. Something I was ambivalent about was the decision to excise the scene with Cinna the Poet, and his being swept up by the angry mob and killed, having been confused with Cinna of the conspirators.  This scene is excised from many stage productions and most films of the play, for purposes of pacing, which is unfortunate.  I feel it is a crucial scene which shows the madness of crowds, the way opinio publica can be twisted by those who seek to further their own ends = “The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power”, indeed.

The lighting was also a major player in this production. For most of the early scenes, the stage was shrouded in a mixture of darkness and low lighting. It is only when we get to the Capitol and the chamber of the Senate that the lights become bright, drawing us to a very stylized and choreographed assassination of Caesar. This continues into the speeches of Brutus and Antony before changing again into an eerie fog-filled atmosphere for the war scenes of the final act.

The assassination of Caesar. Photo by Yann Peucat.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of this production was the use of a live jazz trio, who performed between acts, and occasionally between scenes. The musicians (Marianne Solivan on vocals, Dmitry Ishenko on bass, and Leandro Pelligrino on guitar) were all top-notch and performed extremely well.  But we were anticipating original music.  What was presented was a selection of standards.  In itself, this was not disappointing – and the joining in by Bakker as Portia and Montgomery as Cassius was fun.  However, the selection of pieces – which, lyrically, commented upon the action with a winking, postmodern irony – in some ways undercut the otherwise serious and austere quality of the production and interpretation of the play. After the scene between Brutus and Portia, we were given “You’ve Changed”.  In the entr’acte, we heard “Is That All There Is?”  I felt by the end of the performance, it had become something close to a parody.  

This sense that the music played against the other dimensions was highlighted in the final song-and-dance number, set to some recently recorded, faceless, autotuned pop song (I’m pretty sure it was a Lady Gaga song, but I can’t confirm). It really seemed to be negating much of what I feel is at the core of this play, very serious ideas about morality, duty, and civic responsibility.

This may be the director’s intention, I don’t know for sure, and I can’t say.  The director took many chances with the production and created a fairly unique take on a work which has been performed so many times, in different ways.  “How many ages hence shall this, our lofty scene, be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown”, indeed.

Overall we enjoyed the performance, the design, and the acting. And I like to see productions of Shakespeare’s plays take chances with new directions rather than simply redoing the same thing over and over again. But with any experiment, sometimes things work and sometimes things do not. The end result here was mixed and ambiguous. But perhaps that was the point.

[Jason Berry contributed to this review.]

Cordelia, Theatre of Yugen

Cordelia is a Noh adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear presented by Theatre of Yugen at NOHspace. The play is a combination of old and new. It draws its structure and performance elements from the tradition of Noh and its source text from Shakespeare, both centuries old. But the actual text by Erik Ehn, music by Suki O’Kane and production directed by Jubilith Moore are wholly contemporary. They draw heavily from the traditional sources, but are in no way limited by them. Enh’s text is a rearrangement of lines from the original Shakespeare but focused on the point of view of Cordelia (King Lear’s youngest daughter) minimized to fit within the constraints of Noh. Polly Moller performs on standard concert and bass flutes and a bagpipe chanter, but expertly invokes the attacks, pitch bends and timbral shifts of traditional Japanese music. Sheila Berotti plays the tradition role of the chorus, but as a single voice with a shruti box (a drone instrument usually found in Indian classical music). The main element of the set, a bridge that folds into to descending segments, seems very contemporary and industrial – but it is in fact an adaptation of the traditional hashigakari from Noh theater.

In the first act, Cordelia (played by Moore) appears as a member of a royal court and recounts her refusal to flatter her father, the king, with words, which leads to her being disowned and exiled. In the second act, she returns in the form of a warrior, reflecting her return to England at the end of the play in an attempt to save her father that ultimately ends tragically. In the interlude, we meet the Fool (played by Lluis Valls), who both recites lines from the original play and provides a synopsis of the story. He serves as a comic counterpoint, and as a practical guide for those either unfamiliar with the original King Lear or new to structure of Noh theater. (One particularly fun moment was when he relates the marriages of Cordelia’s sisters, he pauses with a slight look and sound of disgust for the rather creepy Duke of Cornwall.)

[Click to enlarge.]

Overall the elements of the performance, the music, the set design, the text, the movement all have a very minimalist quality. There is a lot of empty space in the slow and deliberate movements of Moore as Cordelia and chanting of the text. Similarly, the music is very sparse. The flute lines are composed from small sets of notes that explore timbre, dynamics and abrupt rhythmic changes. The silence between the flute, text and motion is occasionally punctuated by loud hits on the snare drum (performed by Anna Wray). The space left me ample opportunity to escape from the narrative of the play and instead focus on specific details, such as qualities of the flute performance, the text on wall of the set, the occasional harmonic swells of the shruti box, or details of the lighting.

The main exception to the overall minimalism was the costume design by Risa Dye. Cordelia’s two costumes are both quite elaborate. They combine the multiple layers often found in Noh costumes with rather ornate and highly textured elements reminiscent of Elizabethan England (at least as seen in paintings from the time). The costume of the Fool was something else again, a hooded suit covered entirely in text (taken from another play by Ehn). It helped to emphasize the character of the Fool as a “word artist”, and also contribute to his more frenetic character in contrast to the rest of the performance.

The words were also present on the wall of the set (designed by Joshua McDermott). The wall was inspired by memorial walls, in particular from the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s. Phases from Ehn’s plays were used in place of names. In addition to its direct meaning, the wall evoked for me a sense of urban space with graffiti, which is central in my own visual work.

It is interesting to reflect on how easily the minimalist and non-linear elements of Noh seem to translate into a contemporary work of art, and also provide opportunity for reflection and meditation. At the same time, the structure provides enough space for contemporary visual and musical elements to poke through. As such, it provides some ideas and inspiration for future work.

Cordelia continues with additional performances at Theatre of Yugen tonight (May 5) through Saturday May 7.

[All photos in this article courtesy of Theatre of Yugen.]