‘Julius Caesar’ and the cost of war
By Ann Greer
Friday, November 7, 2014
Shakespeare’s tragedy “Julius Caesar” examines timeless and such well--known themes as the cost of freedom and the abuse of power. But director Robert Richmond aims to inject new life into the story, presenting a cautionary tale that feels ripped from today’s headlines.
In other words, no togas or sandals in sight.
“My passion and mission is to bring Shakespeare into the 21st century and make it as accessible and relevant as possible,” says Richmond, whose Folger Theatre production runs through Dec. 7. “Of course this year should be ‘Julius Caesar.’ It’s an election year and the Folger is just steps from the Capitol building, in the capital of the free world. The play explores what freedom is built upon.”
For those who have forgotten their high school curriculum, here’s the CliffsNotes version: The leader of republican Rome, Julius Caesar (played by Michael Sharon) is assassinated by colleagues who fear his power, led by Brutus (Anthony Cochrane) and Cassius (Louis Butelli). It causes a revolt by the people, who are egged on by Caesar’s friend Mark Antony (Maurice Jones). Chaos and a civil war ensue.
Richmond says he sees Caesar as the catalyst for Rome’s democracy and thinks that examples of this kind of leadership exist worldwide today. The question he finds compelling: What happens to the leader whose force of personality allows for the transition from despotism to democracy? The leader becomes superfluous, Richmond believes.
While doing research for this production, Richmond was moved by experiences both in Washington and in his native England. He went to Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day and read the play there, surrounded by those who died for liberty and the people who mourn them. And at an installation of thousands of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I, the director saw beauty and tragedy, influencing his approach to the play.
“I felt this play could speak to the ongoing cost of war,” he says. “It’s a statement about war and the need of human nature to have war. I wanted to bring out all that is lost.”
With his design team, Richmond set out to create what he calls a time capsule of human nature, moving, over the course of the play, from the ancient world to a more contemporary battlefield. The set itself evokes a monument or tomb with Roman elements, a design Richmond says theatergoers will recognize in many buildings along the Mall.
In his trip to England this summer, Richmond also visited Westminster Abbey, where “visitors displayed a sense of awe and reverence the moment they walked through the door,” he says. “That’s exactly what I’d like to bring to the Folger, a place for the souls of those that have fallen.”