So finally a rehearsal with the man himself: Julius Caesar.
I had called JC, Calpurnia and Mark Antony to look at some early scenes in the play.
Calpurnia is an interesting character. Why is she there? What does she add? She has only a few scenes and in terms of plot seems to be there only to persuade Julius not to go to the senate, in order that moments later he can be persuaded to change his mind! But starting with the very first scene in which we see both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony I was struck that it was about this minor character, her health, her relationship to Caesar. As the title character of the play Julius is ill-served by his introduction; the opening scene sees his supporters belittled by his opponents and allusions made to him as a potential tyrant. When he does appear the audience is in a position to make up their own minds knowing that he is not necessarily the ‘hero’ of the play. And what are his first words? What great speech does he make to introduce himself? No great speech but a rather cruel and public humiliation of his barren wife. Four or five lines and then he is off the stage.
So I felt these four or five lines deserved some consideration. What is going on here? How does Calpurnia feel about this? What is Julius actually saying here, how public is this speech? Is it PR for his masculinity? Of just the casual cruetly of someone who is so powerful they don’t need to worry about other people’s feelings anymore? Also what does Antony think? If Calpurnia and Antony are friendly to each other, surely Antony would find this moment awkward. If they aren’t friends what does that mean?
Working with the actors we discussed all the possibilities and tried out different versions of this short scene. Some as if in public – the PR exercise. Some as calculated cruelty, some as casual. Our final choice was casual cruelty, an unconscious expression of Julius’ insecurity perhaps over his lack of sons? Also, I think, by playing Calpurnia much nearer to her true age than we often see in this play (ie 26), there is also the vulnerability of the much older man with a much younger more attractive wife – does their relationship say ‘still virile’ or ‘desperate to be seen to be virile’?
Looking at the next scene in which we see Calpurnia and Julius together it seems that their private relationship is more relaxed, although slightly patronising perhaps, there is little of the cruelty of the earlier scene. Calpurnia’s concern for Julius is touchingly real. From a rehearsal point of view this was an interesting scene to direct. Two actors, who know each other well, suddenly have to become lovers, long married husband and wife, when their first inclination is to keep their distance. Armed as they were with scripts to read, that proved all to easy; having just one free hand for an embrace and the need to keep scripts in sight meant that real closeness was difficult to achieve – no matter how much I pushed for it! (at times physically pushed.. for it). Then I noticed that Julius’ feet were often pointing in a slightly different direction from Calpurnia, so I asked them to do the scene again and this time to forget about the lines, forget about everything except that when they were talking to each other they should be lined up toe to toe. Normally I direct by asking actors to use their imagination, to imagine their relationship, where they are, what they are doing, what they are thinking about, but sometimes it seems you have to make a physical change too, to allow those things to happen. The scene was transformed by this simple instruction. Toe to toe, they became a real couple. Lines that Calpurnia had struggled with before, suddenly became easy for her, being able to reach Julius more directly. The moments when Julius stops thinking about his wife and starts thinking about himself and his power were more marked, because the break in the intimacy became more obvious.
When Decius joined us for the second half of the rehearsal – and the second half of this scene – this change became even more marked. It also seemed that Julius returned to his ‘public’ relationship with Calpurnia – the one we saw in the first scene – slightly cruel and mocking, allowing him to dismiss her and her fears with more consistency of character than a simple reversal of a decision.
We then returned to the earlier scene, the little aside between Julius and Antony when he talks about his dislike for Cassius. The audience know little of what has happened between him going off, having publicly insulted Calpurnia, and coming back, they know that there have been shouts – possibly the offering of a crown – because Brutus and Cassius discuss it. But when Caesar re-enters we have yet to discover what has actually occurred offstage. Fortunately we are told in the following scene. Using this information we can inform Caesar and Antony’s scene. We discussed what had happened, the offering and refusing of the crown by Antony to Caesar – shouted for by the crowd – Caesar’s subsequent epileptic fit, his recovery, his exit from the square into this quieter place. Having discussed that Caesar’s hatred for Cassius might have come about because of his humiliation at having to be rescued from the river by her, and also her having witnessed his fit in Spain we seem to have arrived at a decision that for Caesar his worst cruelty and hatred hinge upon his perception of his physical infirmities (epilepsy, inability to have a son) as humiliations. Those who are associated with these things – or part of them – then are humiliated – or he seeks to humiliate in turn. To help Caesar and Antony in scene we roughly improvised the offering of the crown, the fit and the aftermath of the fit. How would you feel both physically and mentally if that happened to you in front of thousands of people, live on TV, with cameras flashing, helicopters circling? Going straight into the scene we finally captured a glimpse of Caesar’s vulnerability, in his disorientation he seizes on a the presence of Cassius. Is he perhaps talking of past humiliations mingling them with current ones? Slowly he comes back into himself, reasserting his authority (albeit shakily) by the end of the speech. Again it seemed that a physical imaginative approach worked better than simple thought. Re-running it some of the initial impact was lost, but we have begun something here which I think all the actors understand the process of, which I hope they will be able to use to work from when working on their own. Further rehearsals will tell!