The world of political machinations took a precarious turn of events at the opening night production of Julius Caesar at Stratford’s Festival Theatre. Seana McKenna essays the role of the pompously doomed, Ides of March leader who returns victorious from a civil war against the forces of the rival general and statesman, Pompey. Caesar is welcomed back with a mighty popular acclaim from the Roman people. His friend, Mark Antony (a confident and bold Michelle Giroux), offers the crown to his ruler which becomes an issue of contention and alarm among a group of senators led by Brutus and Cassius (Jonathan Goad and a tightly solid performance by Irene Poole) who consider this move by Caesar as politically ambitious and a threat to the Roman government system.
Brutus (a craftily nuanced performance of unresolved indecision by Jonathan Goad) becomes torn in his affection and love for his comrade, Caesar, versus his concern for the state of Rome. Eventually, Brutus is persuaded by the other senators to join in an assassination plot to murder Caesar before he can become a tyrant. Tragedy reigns supreme in the aftermath for everyone involved.
Was Julius Caesar an important and good choice for the Festival’s 2018 slate? A most emphatic and definite yes from me because director Scott Wentworth took a risk here, and I believe it paid off.
For one, the gender-bending in having strong women play some of the Bard’s iconic male roles worked exceptionally well. I had no problem with it whatsoever; theatre traditionalists, no need to worry. In his Director’s Notes, Scott Wentworth wrote, “To be a politician and to have doubts, to change your mind, is a sign of weakness.” In this Caesar, I had no issue in suspending disbelief as there is no sign of weakness in watching any of these high caliber women tackle some of Shakespeare’s male iconic political roles, with Seana McKenna leading the way. Last winter, I saw her play Lear at Groundling Theatre. Her Lear was a tour de force of digging deep into the flawed character traits of a parent first and then a Queen who becomes “more sinned against than sinning.”
McKenna’s initial entrance in the first act of Caesar is striking and regal, but ill-fated character flaws begin to seep through especially in the way he speaks condescendingly to his wife, Calpurnia (trim work by Jacklyn Francis). Later, this patronizingly dominant attitude rears its ugly head again when Caesar aggressively chastises Calpurnia for her foolish dream about not going to the Capitol. Finally, the inherent sadness in McKenna’s voice in her utterance to her supposed friend, “Et tu, Brute,” magnifies further the grave error committed in this assassination.
As Mark Antony, Michelle Giroux manages a careful construction of pace, voice, diction, and movement in her delivery of the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech at Caesar’s funeral to sway the crowd. Mark Antony knows he must deal with competing against the crowd’s siding with the conspirators, but he begins his slow task in playing to and building the crowd’s emotions.
So did Ms. Giroux, remarkably I might add here. The height of her splendidly passionate delivery was reached in the removal of the gown to show Caesar’s stab wounds all with a quiet, albeit directly sharp punctuating of the ironic “And Brutus is an honorable man.” Top notch stuff here.
Jonathan Goad is a brooding and hesitant Brutus of wanting to do what is right. His constant uncertainty of whether to commit the assassination of his comrade and friend, Caesar, all to ensure that Rome does not fall under a tyrannical rule, strongly compelled me to watch his every action. I was tremendously moved by Mr. Goad’s noble performance as Atticus Finch earlier this summer, and it was wonderful to see him tackle another role directly opposite in nature from the quiet, unassuming lawyer.
The cat and mouse staging of the conspirators against Caesar (Irene Poole, Joseph Ziegler, Brad Hodder, Dejah Dixon-Green, John Kirkpatrick, Jonelle Gunderson, and Rylan Wilkie) was stirring to watch. Even though I remembered the exact line when the attack was to take place, the adrenaline was pumping within me as the fluid movement of all the actors involved kept me riveted. Matthew G. Brown’s blind Soothsayer eerily engrossed me as I watched his brief but important moments to the plot.
The nearly bare stage of the Festival Theatre worked for me as I was able to maintain my direct focus on the plot action. Costumes, for the most part, were appropriate to the era, but I was puzzled at one odd choice in the crowd scene. I saw a couple of Quaker costumes that puzzled me for a few seconds in wondering whether I was in Rome or on the Mayflower in the new-found land. Just a minor quibble for me, but a momentary distraction from the action of the plot.
Julius Caesar continues at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street in Stratford until October 27, 2018. Visit www.stratfordfestival.ca for further information or telephone 1-800-567-1600 or 1-519-273-1600.
Running time approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with one twenty-minute interval.
This article originally appeared in Onstage Blog on August 23, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.