Arts & Events

Not Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR but Zellerbach’s

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday May 04, 2019 - 04:16:00 PM

Théâtre National de Bretagne came to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on April 27-8 with Arthur Nauzyciel’s staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. This French théâtre troupe performed Shakespeare’s text, or most of it, in English. However, in the cavernous expanse of Zellerbach Hall, Shakespeare’s immortal text was, for the most part, gone with the wind. Even from my seat in center orchestra, the spoken text was only partly audible. One caught a word or two here and there, though rarely a whole sentence. I can’t imagine how little of Shakespeare’s text was heard at the back of the house or up in the balconies. If one thing is perfectly clear, it is that Zellerbach Hall is simply too cavernous a space for presenting Shakespeare’s plays. Had these performances been given in either the much smaller Playhouse or in Hertz Hall, I’m sure the expérience would have been far more fulfilling and enjoyable. Instead, we got not Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar but Zellerbach’s. What a shame ! 

Immortal lines such as Caesar’s, « Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous , » or, to give another example, Brutus’s monologue, « Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar, I have not slept. Between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasma or a hideous dream , » simply went unheard in Zellerbach. What we were left with, then, was a barely audible text and director Arthur Nauzyciel’s staging. This latter was, to borrow Brutus’s unheard words, « like a phantasma or a hideous dream. » 

Nauzyciel’s actors moved about the stage at a snail’s pace, like zombies caught in a nightmarish afterlife. They seemed less like flesh and blood Romans than pale revenants, returned from the dead to reenact their murderous crime in a theatre. Indeed, Riccardo Hernandez’s sets prominently featured enormous photographic images of a bank of theatre seats, thus mirroring back to us our unenviable position in a cavernous theatre space.  

Nauzyciel costumed these Romans in 1960s suits and ties of a distinctly American cut. The characters all looked like Richard Nixon’s gang of plumbers. Or they looked like Mafia dons. When the conspirators gathered in Brutus’s house to plot Caesar’s assassination, they ritually all drank from a single wineglass passed from man to man among them all. They also ritually shook hands both when vowing their murder and after accomplishing it. They also ritually took turns smearing Caesar’s blood on their hands, one conspirator after another till all were bloodstained.  

Where individual performances are concerned, what can one say ? Without having heard any clear declamation of the text, we were again left with little but body language to go on. James Waterston was a physical presence as Brutus, and he even managed to convey some of his character’s hesitancies regarding the murderous plot he hatched. As Portia, Brutus’s wife, Sara Kathryn Bakker was a luminous presence, and she even managed to make a crucial line or two of her dialogue heard. Mark Montgomery was a believable Cassius. Daniel Pettrow was perhaps a bit over the top as Mark Antony, even if his character’s famous funeral speech, « Friends, Romans, and countrymen, lend me your ears. I come not to bury Caesar but to praise him, » was entirely cut from this production. In its place, an overwrought Mark Antony delivered ritualized torturous blows to his own body as he stood over the dead body of Julius Caesar. In the role of Julius Caesar, Dylan Kussman barely suggested Caesar’s charisma and sway over the Roman masses. Luca Carboni was effective as the soothsayer, and his famous line, « Beware the ides of March, » was delivered loud and clear.  

In the final analysis, I choose to end this review of Julius Caesar with my own soothsaying proclamation : « Beware the cavernous space of Zellerbach. Here all declamation goes for naught. »