“Julius Caesar” is an important turning point in Shakespeare’s career, in which he segued from writing histories of England to tragedies gleaned largely from Plutarch’s “Lives,” as translated by Sir Thomas North. It is palatably told, replete with memorable language, larger-than-life characters and sword fights. The play is a lesson in the hubris of power and the fickle nature of politics.
Shakespeare Carolina’s production capitalizes on the intimate setting of Duke Energy Theatre by staging actors’ entrances through the aisles. The set is a simple staircase that melds with the theater’s wooden balcony. The lack of embellishment allows director Tony Wright to mine the language of the play, in which its power lies. Costumes by Rebecca Randolph add sex appeal with leather arm gauntlets and metal shoulder armor.
The story begins well into Caesar’s reign, after he significantly expanded the Roman Empire and was a beloved leader of the republic. Though popular with the people, Caesar’s rise worried members of the Senate, who feared he desired to be crowned, thereby transforming the republic into a monarchy.
Cassius and Brutus are two such senators. Russell Rowe plays Brutus as a sober, noble man whose conscience is torn between his love for Caesar and his determination for Rome to remain a republic. Rowe plays the straight man well and is convincing in his conclusion that murder can be an act of honor.
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Brutus’s concern over Caesar’s outsized power is revealed and preyed upon by Cassius, an unscrupulous manipulator played by Wright. Wright captures the complexity of Cassius. He melds brilliance and wiles as he prods Brutus toward action. “I was born free as Caesar; so were you,” says Cassius. “Men at some time are masters of their fates.” When the crowd cheers Caesar in the background, Cassius goads him: “Why should that name be sounded more than yours?”
Thus is an assassination conspiracy born. The ambiguity of the play is intriguing. Do the senators conspire to murder Caesar because they want to protect the citizenry from subjugation to a king? Or do they act to maintain their status and power? Caesar did not ask to be king, and indeed, turned down the offer three times in a public place. Was part of Caesar’s plan to fool the populace about his true intent? Critics have argued all sides since that fateful Ides of March.
Several outstanding dialogues are at the heart of “Julius Caesar.” The opening admonition to a gathering of Caesar’s admirers by the tribune Marullus is delivered with aplomb by Kevin Aoussou.
Act III, Scene 2 contains two beauties. “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more,” Brutus tells the crowd, explaining his actions with cold, hard logic. He then gives permission for Mark Antony to eulogize Caesar; a fateful mistake. “I come to bury Caesar, not praise him,” Oyebola Ande begins, launching into a masterful piece of emotional and manipulative wordsmithing. Shakespeare is widely available on the written page, but the poetry and the plot are more accessible onstage.