revew: Atri Banerjee – Julius Caesar
by William Shakespeare/
dir Atri Banerjee/
design Rosanna Vize/
music Jasmin Kent Rodgman/
movement Jennifer Jackson/
Royal Shakespeare Company/
20-24 Jun 2023//
black grease and the engine of fate
When I think of wolves I think of lies. One of the key figures responsible for the modern myth of the ‘alpha’ wolf is American biologist, L David Mech. Mech has himself acknowledged the shortcomings of his earlier studies of wolves:
The prevailing view of a wolf (Canis lupus) pack is that of a group of individuals ever vying for dominance but held in check by the “alpha” pair, the alpha male and the alpha female. Most research on the social dynamics of wolf packs, however, has been conducted on non-natural assortments of captive wolves.
Metaphors need no grounding in fact to feel true. For people who need to nurture their belief in a biological hierarchy of power governing our social relationships, the image of the wolf is a sufficient appeal to a world which precedes any we know. Humanity is vanity, and to believe we are separate from animals is an indulgence. Cruelty, only cruelty, can be true. Compassion and love are decadent, showy and embarrassing distractions. What an impoverished existence such people live.
Metaphors, for this purpose, reinforce the world we already believe in. Though you hopefully don’t believe in trite trash like ‘alphas’, maybe you’re inspired by the knowledge that felled tree stumps are kept alive through the roots by their living neighbours. Perhaps knowing that some species of birds mourn for their dead stirs something in you, and in reminding you of your own capacity to love, leaves you feeling connected to something larger, older, or even smaller, closer, but connected and powerful in love. It doesn’t matter if these ideas are grounded in fact as long as the metaphor is useful to our lives.
Before the plot begins, the cast of Julius Caesar are wolves, howling. Wolves are pack animals. The pack is a superorganism, living on the strength of the bonds between its members, on their shared ability to keep each other alive. Much hay has been made by biologists wrestling with the ‘problem’ of altruism in evolutionary biology: why would an animal aid the survival of another, at the expense of transferring its own genes to the next generation?
Julius Caesar is a play about altruism. Brutus joins the murder of Caesar for fear of Caesar becoming a tyrant. The other conspirators claim, too, this murder is for the good of Rome, the empire, the superorganism. Jennifer Jackson’s choreography has the cast move in formation – they are pack, they are military, they are restless. The superobject, Rome, is motivation for any action, altruistic or selfish – each Roman is Rome, this is the logic of the empire. The reality of the lofty goal of Rome is that the conspirators act like crabs in a bucket, each convinced of their own higher understanding of what Rome needs, each only so much self-interested scrambling.
I had forgotten how much Julius Caesar heaves with omens. On the day Caesar is to die, in Rome,
A lioness hath whelpèd in the streets,
And graves have yawned and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors have fought upon the clouds
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
The will of fate has penetrated the fabric of reality, the streets and sky are haunted and it rains blood. Caesar is a fool to ignore the omens and travel as planned to the Capitol. Because he is to be murdered (because this is Julius Caesar and that is what happens in this play) the wild world swinging off its hinges is a warning. Caesar though can’t do anything different, otherwise the play wouldn’t happen. The demand for death comes from Caesar’s power, and his imagined will to reign – the role’s existence is untenable – but the demand too comes from fate, fate in the world of the play and fate in the form. The Soothsayer shouts their warning from the stalls, ‘Beware the Ides of March,’ but beware too, Caesar, your place in the inevitable plot of history, the inevitable consequence of your name.
Cassius knows he is in a play; his altruism is in service to history itself. These murderous acts must take place because this is the point in history where Julius Caesar is murdered. The audience of history has their eyes on him, he implores the other murderers to join him in sousing his arms in Caesar’s blood:
Stoop then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn, and accents yet unknown!
History is a story people tell later; we have a duty to perform it, and grandly. The statesmen smear themselves in blood black like engine grease. This grease will ease the grinding passage of history. Here is blood which is black because we see it through a veil. I am reminded of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal TV series, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal:
Have you ever seen blood in the moonlight, Will?
It appears quite black.
In the second half of the third series of Hannibal, serial killer Francis Dolarhyde drenches himself in the blood of his victims, standing in the light of the full moon coated in the changed, black stuff, willing a change in himself. With a similar, awful physical sensibility, Atri Banerjee directs Julius Caesar with no literal swords. When the cast make reference to swords and daggers, they indicate those fingered things on the ends of their arms. When blood is spilled it is spilled by bare hands. Blood doesn’t belong outside. When we see it, moonlit or not, we have to confront the metaphysical reality that the bodies we inhabit are fragile, that all our thoughts of states and fate can be torn away when our vessels fail us. Shakespeare loves a play where spilled blood changes the world.
The day after seeing this show, I see a woman walking through Manchester City Centre wearing the exact costume of the Soothsayer in this production. Nothing alarming; scarlet Adidas trackies and a white top. In that moment I am back in the double-reality of the theatre. The stage image of the Soothsayer, shouting from the stalls, and this woman calmly walking through her day, and the actor playing the Soothsayer shouting from the stalls, converge and confront me. The form of theatre penetrates into reality. Fate penetrates into reality.
There are those of us who sometimes prefer to think of our lives as a performance. A phone conversation with your landlord may involve you behaving braver than you are; a discussion with a friend you are angry with may involve you performing someone who is not about to cry. In these moments, we must believe we are more than who we are. We enter into theatre, we embrace that part of ourselves which is more-than-representational. Tonight we are Romans, (friends… countrymen…) and we ourselves are part of the action of history. History is a story people tell later, and a story we tell ourselves as we perform it. History is performed, the present is performed, fate is performed.
Rosanna Vize’s set design is presided over by a monstrous, skeletal cube. It rotates and reveals its innards – furnished rooms or bare scaffolding, clambered o’er with the ghosts of the murdered cast, who have shrugged off their drab mortal greys and beiges and now are clad in bright, bright colour. Cubes are holy and horrific. I think of the dimensions of New Jerusalem in the book of Revelations, its height, width and depth 12,000 furlongs (~1500 miles) – a monstrously large city of God. I think of the Kaaba (literally ‘cube’) in Mecca – the house of God at the centre of Islam’s holiest city. Cubes are a concentration of power, impenetrability, holy geometry. The mystery of divinity is encapsulated in an object so easy to comprehend, but impossible to see inside of. Here, when finally rotated 180 degrees, Vize’s cube is painted within with a huge, famished and hollow angel of death. The cube holds the dead, and Rome lies beneath the skeletal wings of this dread angel.
Fate moves like a wheel, this cube the engine of history. The cube rotates only when physically pushed by the cast and tech crew. Like Banerjee’s swords, it is flesh which drives this awful motor of history. And where there are moving parts on stage, there is thick, black grease. The same blood which pours from the cast is the lubricant this cube needs to keep moving. History must be fed to move, with our bodies and our blood. Brutus’s capacity for love and murder are driven by the same heart. To prove his love, and earn the admiration of Rome, he must feed history with bodies, he must meet peace with blood, the wheel must be greased.