Sunday 31 January 2016

Julius Caesar – Teatr Powszechny, Warsaw

[seen 23/01/16]

[preamble *after* review]

Have you ever seen a production of Julius Caesar that actual felt modern, relevant, or – most crucially – fast? More than this, have you ever seen a production that surprised you? (Full marks to those who saw Castellucci’s Guilo Cesare at LIFT in ‘99)

What is most fascinating, watching Barbara Wysocka’s production was the way that it felt so fresh. It made me realise the extent to which even the best British Shakespeare is completely hidebound by the ancient language in which it’s written. And the overwhelming, ENORMOUS BAGGAGE that brings with it. And the ways of speaking the text seem to unavoidable – I mean, even if it’s spoken in a non-RP accent, it’s still *incredibly wordy*; the sentences, the thought processes, are *very long* no matter how it’s said. But more than this it’s the unconscious ways we have of seeing/thinking about the characters that seem to make so many productions feel like tired re-treads.

In Julius Caesar, for example, don’t we tend to think of Mark Antony, Brutus and Cassius as relatively noble and well-intentioned, to some degree? A degree usually backed-up by impeccable public school accents, evidencing Britain’s unfathomable, ongoing (at least until recently), apparent respect for the “political class”? (Or, at the very best: desire to give everyone the benefit of the doubt) They’re “heroic” in some form or other anyway. Here, I was surprised to see an almost complete contempt for *everyone*. No noble motives, it seemed. No one was to be admired. No one’s motivation was to be *understood*. This was a tragedy of gangsterism and thuggery. And the tragedy wasn’t for the characters on stage, but for the country they govern/ed.

To say that this reflects the political reality as it’s being experienced and lived in Poland at the moment is an understatement. As we know, the far-right Law and Justice Party has the first overall parliamentary majority in Poland since 1989. And the party *is* popular in the country. But at the same time, there are protests on the streets every weekend, or every other weekend. There are protests on the streets because the Law and Justice Party are essentially passing law after law dismantling what we would call the essentials of a democracy. Their most recent move is a law that co-opts the (formerly theoretically impartial) state broadcasting company into the party’s promotional machine.*

This is an apocalyptic Julius Caesar that *actually resonates*. It’s not Tito Fiennes and a cast of hundreds of (probably unpaid) extras on the stage of the Barbican Theatre making it completely clear that the audience’s relationship to the events depicted is one of spectatorship. This is seven people performing Shakespeare as a live and dangerous reflection that feels like a critique of live and dangerous times. I should say, though, these possible parallels aren’t laboured or even stated. The production itself is – in many ways – a totally “straight” modern-dress production with some serious editing (2hrs straight through).

Its design (Barbara Hanicka  – excitingly, there are more women called Barbara on the production team than men) is spartan and impressive. Opening with a slightly scaled-back, theatre-based version of the raked seating set (cf. Benedict Andrews’s Caligula), the exciting thing is firstly that this rostrum is on a revolve, and then secondly, that it’s later tipped into an angle and set on fire (well, politely set on fire in a couple of limited flame-proof sections, but even so...). But, within this apparently simple set you have all the playing spaces you could possibly need. Conspirators can cluster in a downstage corner while Caesar lounges in a high-up central seat, and – while completely lacking fussy naturalistic detail – the dynamic is perfect, while also avoiding the godawful “stage secrecy” often deployed.

The performances, in common with the dramaturgy (Tomasz Śpiewak) and the design, are brutally effective and unshowy. I mean, look, I don’t speak Polish, so I’m at a disadvantage, but you can kind of see whether someone’s compelling or not *even more* if you’re still interested in watching them even when you don’t actually understand the words coming out of their mouth. To me they seemed completely *real*, in-the-moment, energetic performances – think so many Lars Eidingers. The connection with the audience, established when they were talking to them, doesn’t just cut off when the cast are talking to each other. This is neither fourth-wall nautralism, nor that Globe Shakespeare playing to the crowd. Rather it’s just a set of very engaging exchanges that we’re invited to contextualise and re-imagine for ourselves taking place on a design that guides our thoughts about why those exchanges might be resonant.

Added to these elements is a soundtrack of 80s cult Polish post-punk protest (apparently) music, which adds another layer to the production. The aim here isn’t just to reflect the current political situation (because, really, why would you use Julius Caesar as a play to talk about a resistance you want to see succeed?). The presence of this music – obliquely against the communist times of the 1980s when it was written – suggests instead (to me) a process of ongoing disillusionment with overturning governments. The liberation from communism has led, now, to the increasingly illiberal Law and Order Party: “what hope is there, really?” the production almost demands.

By presenting this old play, based on ancient history, it feels that this production harnesses those centuries upon centuries of tradition to hammer home two points: 1) revolt is necessary, vital and exciting, 2) the results of revolt necessitate further revolt. Always.

It feels like an accurate and timely reading, but an exhausting prospect.


[preamble to the above]

After I saw Julius Caesar, I sent the following email (slightly expanded below to make sense to those of you who have not seen the show) to the theatre’s dramaturg:

“Which bit of text were they doing at the very start? (The first two people who come on stage. Cassius and Brutus, I think? Or was it Cassius and Mark Antony? Argh. What were they addressing directly to the audience?”

[Now, looking at the text, perhaps thanks to the multiple doubling up – or *not* doubling up – my guess is that the normal, “original” opening lines of Marullus and Flavius are here being performed without the scripted replies from on-stage plebs. Who the characters speaking the lines were was never clear, but in this cast of seven – five men and two women, with one woman playing multiple parts, some female, some not – and with the other woman on stage being the director...

The other reason it wasn’t clear was because the people speaking sounded exactly like normal people... Hang on to that thought in particular...

“Was there ad-libbing? What was that *really* big laugh? And those other laughs in Mark Antony's funeral speech? They felt very specific and loaded.”

[And no one in Britain ever laughs at these bits, do they? No one *really laffs* at “honourable men”, do they? Even though rherotically it’s so good and so well written. No actor manages to make it surprising enough to be funny, do they? It’s always more hectoring, in UK, isn’t it?]

“And when Barbara Wysocka did the Mark Antony speech – had it been it reassigned? To Calphurnia? Or was she “playing” Mark Antony? Or am I being *WAY TOO LITERAL* here? Need there be that degree of continuity or ‘character’? Was she doing it *as herself*? As the director?”

“How do your Polish critics approach performances like this? This is really interesting to me, because I think the UK approach would be simply to describe how it deviates from the written play – in part just because that’s the simplest way to outline the things that are most interesting (to me), and because people who read theatre reviews tend to know the basic plots of Shakespeare's major plays – but it feels then that I’d end up reviewing what’s not there and what’s *not as it was written in 1599*, which seems silly since something obviously coherent was there... Shouldn’t I just review that as if it was a new play?”

Of course, part of the reason I feel like this about approaching Wysocka’s production (and need to ask some of those questions at all) is because I don’t speak Polish. And there were no surtitles. So, much more than the problem of “preconception” here is the problem that my prior knowledge of the play is also the blueprint for my understanding in the moment. [Perhaps this is always a problem we have with watching extant plays in Britain. But I don’t fully understand why it would be so specific to Britain. But even so, I guess in part it’s put-downable to something akin to that “It’s not how I imagined them” feeling you get when you see “the film of the book”.]


As the famous American philosopher once noted:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.”** [my italics]

It was Slavoj Žižek who pointed out that there is a missing fourth category, the Unknown Known, which – he claimed – describes ideology; unconscious assumptions, things we don’t even think about knowing.

Taken as a full set, they are an incredibly useful way of approaching talking about what we see when we see “Shakespeare” performed in a foreign country; and then, beyond that, how we see something about our own Unknown Knowns about Shakespeare...

I haven’t yet had a chance to read erstwhile Guardian theatre editor Andrew Dickson’s book Worlds Elsewhere on the subject, but I’d be lying if claimed I didn’t enjoy with great schadenfreude the description of his chapter on Germany as: “a total waste of time. Facile about Germany, facile about Shakespeare, unspeakably ignorant about contemporary theatre: why bother travelling to another country, ostensibly to research what Shakespeare means to its theatre, if you're not going to make the slightest effort to understand what you're seeing on stage? The worst kind of reactionary claptrap.”***

But, at the same time, I absolutely felt the implied chill of such criticism about my own modest efforts in this department:

Known Knowns (things I know I know):

Julius Caesar, the play written in early-modern English by William Shakespeare
A passing acquaintance with the text’s recent performance history in the UK
The last performance I saw at Teatr Powszechny
Some other performances of Shakespeare in Poland (WATCH THE TRAILER UNDER THAT LINK: best Hamlet opening EVER)
The political context in Poland that necessarily provides the social backdrop to this production

Known Unknowns (things I know I don’t know):

The performance history of Julius Caesar in Poland
When it comes down to it: Poland’s more over-arching reasons and/or methods in theatre – neither (in general terms) definitively “text-based” (so problematic a term) British, nor the pure “regie/concept/abstraction” of Germany. [my suspicion is, like maybe Nübling and Ostermeier, Poland has a less doctrinaire sort of directors’ theatre that is less to do with intellectual concept and more to do with visceral excitement, but with an more naturalistic/realist inheritance in its acting style?]

Unknown Unknowns (The things I don’t know I don’t know):

Well, I don’t know, do I?

Unknown Knowns:

[return to top]


These are the songs from the soundtrack:

Kult – Po co wolność [For what is freedom?]

Republika – Gdzie są moi przyjaciele [Where are my friends?]
sorry about the video for this one. Only one I could find on

Brygada Kryzys – Centrala

* I mean, of course the fucking Tories have as near as dammit done the same to the BBC, and everyone in Britain has sat about, moaned a bit on Twitter, and mostly decided that “It’s probably fine really”. And this is kind of the difference I’m talking about. It’s much easier to be in control in Britain. You know; proper, stranglehold control. I mean, sure, it’s ghastly in Poland, but at least they have people protesting on the streets against a government that is infinitely more popular than the Conservatives are in the UK. The weird difficulty that both Britain and Poland have, is that neither party is actually doing anything *that bad* compared with the worst case scenarios of history. (Ditto Hungary.) It feels as if a widely understood term needs to be coined to discuss this problem that if a modern regime isn’t committing genocide, doesn’t have a Gestapo, isn’t rolling Soviet tanks into the town centre, it’s somehow ok...

**I was reminded by this [today] by Vinay Patel, so thanks, Vinay.

*** “2013. I’m in Berlin, where I've just seen Raphael Sanchez' Coriolanus. Not a great production, but one that had me reflecting on the difference between German and Anglo theatre, and the differences in critical cultures. So I wrote a blog post about it, in which I said the following:

‘Even the most conservative critics seem to have accepted that performance is necessarily a dialectic – that any production that doesn’t transform the play it brings to the stage isn’t really doing what theatre is supposed to do. And that strikes me as a fairly profound difference in attitude to the way most reviewers write about theatre in the major English and North American papers. The German critics’ consensus on this Coriolanus was something like “Stellar actors, some nice scenes, but conceptually a mess; lazily thinks it’s enough to rely on Shakespeare and add some ornaments from the toolkit of modern theatre. Same old, same old. Mr Sanchez needs to think harder and give his actors something more interesting to do.” I have a sense that English reviews of Sanchez’s take on Coriolanus, by contrast, would have said something like “A lot of incomprehensible nonsense and heady stuff, but some very well-acted scenes; Mr Sanchez should have trusted his actors and Shakespeare more and given us more of the latter”.’

‘Flash forward to 2015. Andrew Dickson, former Guardian theatre critic, publishes a book about international Shakespeare, featuring a pretty terrible chapter about Germany, in which he writes about that same Coriolanus. And AMAZINGLY, he makes my 2013 fantasy a reality: “By the time I returned to the Deutsches Theater, this time to see a performance, I felt I was clutching at straws. A friend of a friend, Ramona Mosse, had kindly offered to talk about her work on postwar political theatre; we’d settled on combining this with a new production of Coriolanus. The show was even more self-consciously baffling than the productions in Munich: acted by five female performers wearing wigs to a soundtrack of corny eighties pop music, its logic largely eluded me.

‘“One reason it was liberating to encounter Shakespeare in translation was that he could be the best of both worlds: both ancient and modern, both canonical and contemporary. The Romantic Schlegel-Tieck now being deeply un-hip in Germany, most theatres re-translated him each time they mounted a new production. Given everything I’d discovered about culture in the Third Reich, a suspicion of received wisdoms and the classical canon was understandable. But was this still Shakespeare? I felt we’d gone over the edge”.’


Anyway. I think we’re done with talking about Julius Caesar now.

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