Tension between love and violence enraptures Stratford’s Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

star rating 2.5 (out of 4)

By William Shakespeare. Directed by Scott Wentworth. Until Oct. 28 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford. Tickets at stratfordfestival.ca

There’s a famous Alfred Hitchcock quote that advises, “Film your murders like love scenes, and film your love scenes like murders.” It came to mind during that pivotal moment in Shakespeare’s historical tragedy Julius Caesar, which opened at the Stratford Festival Thursday night. As Seana McKenna’s wreathed tyrant meets his fate surrounded by conspirators with daggers at the ready, director Scott Wentworth places Caesar’s final moments under a dramatic spotlight (lighting design by Louise Guinand), with red rose petals falling gently from above. The final blow, delivered by Caesar’s trusted ally Marcus Brutus (Jonathan Goad), is an intimate, consensual one; the two men holding each other close, locking eyes, the dying pseudo-tyrant acquiescing to the inevitable and baring his chest. He dies in a close embrace with his murderer — and it’s romantic as hell.

This moment stands out in Wentworth’s production for several reasons. First, the whole play is enraptured with the tension between love and violence. Brutus in particular is adamant that his act of violence is done out of devotion to his country, and that he is an honourable man — a sentiment that Marc Antony (Michelle Giroux), in what’s considered one of the great orations in written history, uses to turn the Roman public against him. With a brutal downfall waiting for Brutus and his co-conspirator Cassius (a stone-cold Irene Poole), Julius Caesar makes the uncontroversial argument that murder is never justified, even when the intention is believed to be noble (and Wentworth’s floral fanfare suggests it really is).

It also stands out because it’s one of the few moments that shows a distinct aesthetic directorial choice. Instead of fashionable contemporary references and characters, Wentworth plays Julius Caesar in a straightforward fashion — dim lighting, dark and heavy colours, Elizabethan dress and Roman armour (design by Christina Poddubiuk), and performances that are intended to investigate the toxic masculinity of ancient Rome ingrained in the characters. Wentworth, known until recently primarily as an actor at the Festival (this summer, he pulls double duty as James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, opposite his Caesar, McKenna, as Mary) places his actors at the centre of the production, rather than any period setting or visual thematics.

Poole’s Cassius reeks of indignance and self-importance, finding his deepest resentment in his criticisms of Caesar’s physical power. Poole’s delivery of the line “I did hear him groan/Ay, and that tongue of his that bade the Romans/Mark him and write his speeches in their books—/‘Alas,’ it cried, ‘Give me some drink, Titinius,’/As a sick girl.” has a particularly loathsome finish, especially coming from Poole, a woman, playing such misogyny.

In this context, Monice Peter’s Portia is similarly indoctrinated into the period’s toxicity, judging her worthy of Brutus’s companionship due to her proximity to powerful men: “Think you I am no stronger than my sex/Being so father’d and so husbanded?” Talk about portraying love scenes like murder scenes, you can practically see Portia’s sense of self-worth eroding with every casual wave from her husband, giving way for her eventual suicide after he leaves for war.

Carly Maga is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @RadioMaga