Andrea Baracco and Vincenzo Manna’s adaptation of Julius Caesar has abruptly changed the mood set by the other companies who have taken part in the Globe to Globe season to date. This Giulio Cesare, which opened to critical acclaim in Italy in June 2011, made no concessions to the unique performance space offered by the Globe stage and granted none of the light relief Globe audiences are used to, either through a direct interaction between the actors and the audience or through an emphasis on the comic elements that often underpin Shakespeare’s tragedies. Unlike the lively and energetic Richard III performed in Mandarin by the National Theatre of China, or even the MaoriTroilus and Cressida, which injected energy and vitality into Shakespeare’s problematic and cynical play, Baracco and Manna’s Giulio Cesare offered the Globe audience a much more challenging, though hugely rewarding, experience.  Skillfully performed by six young actors, the play was electrifying but also exhausting to watch, at least partly because it ushers the audience into a world that is already irredeemably marred by political corruption and moral and intellectual paralysis.

The boldest directorial intervention in this pared down version of Julius Caesar is the excision of Caesar. Granted that the play is named after a character who speaks a mere 5% of the lines in Shakespeare’s play, the realization that Caesar was never going to materialize on stage came as a shock. And yet cutting Caesar does make sense, both in relation to the play, where, to misquote Hamlet, ‘nothing’, including the elusive character of Caesar, ‘is good or bad by tellingmakes it so’, and in relation to this production, where the killing of Caesar, the climax of the tragic action in Shakespeare’s play, was effectively executed. At this pivotal moment in the play, Bruto (Giandomenico Cupaiuolo), Cassio (Roberto Manzi) and Casca (Lucas Waldem Zanforlini) marched slowly downstage and proceeded to slash a bottomless chair, which featured prominently throughout the production as the seat of power that Caesar aspires to. It was unfortunate that some members of the audience, who do not speak Italian and were sitting or standing directly behind the two columns that support the roof above the stage, missed the killing of Caesar altogether and told me afterwards that they resented the omission of the one line they were listening out for – Et tu, Brute?

The bottomless chair, in which Bruto and Cassio got suggestively and awkwardly stuck at different times before killing Caesar, is representative of this production’s emphasis on a few distinctive visual elements suggested by Shakespeare’s dialogue. Central to Baracco’s and Manna’s re-interpretation of the play are, for example, three large doors, occasionally left to stand on an otherwise empty stage or more often supported by the actors, who used them both as an extension of the tiring house and as a liminal space behind which their characters cowered or skulked as the main action unfolded on the stage. The doors worked best when the actors used them as screens to suggest absent characters or even states of minds, as in the forum, when caps and flowers tied to long poles were held up from behind the doors to signify the throng of plebeians listening to Brutus’s and Cassius’s orations, or in Brutus’s house, on the night before the killing of Caesar, when one hand protruding from behind one door supported Brutus’s head, trying to lull him into sleep, and another hand clicked its fingers to wake him up every time he dozed off.

The elegant fluidity of the Italian translation-adaptation of Shakespeare’s text relieved some of the sense of hopelessness and unease so forcefully represented through the actors’ actions and body language. Portia’s challenge to Brutus, ‘Abito solo il sobborgo del tuo piacere?’ (Dwell I but in the suburbs / Of your good pleasure?) and Antony’s curse ‘Che siano maledette le mani sporche del tuo nobile sangue!’ (Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!’) struck a chord through their beautiful simplicity. Also worth noting is that allusions to the deplorable state of Italian politics under former Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi emerged, subtly but eloquently, from Baracco’s and Manna’s script. A good example is the first exchange between Bruto and Cassio, where Cassio remarks that ‘Roma e’ ora soltanto una stanzetta.’ (loosely translated from ‘Now is it Rome indeed, and room enough, / When there is in it but only one man.’)

Similarly memorable for me were the female characters, who have notoriously limited roles in a play that explores the impact of stifling and corrupt power structures on the lives of strong maleindividuals. This production gives Calpurnia (Ersilia Lombardo) and Porzia (Livia Castiglioni) more space and new lines. Calpurnia was visibly torn apart by her inability to give Cesare a child, a successor, and sought shelter from the public scrutiny and shaming she is exposed to during the Lupercalia by knocking on doors that did not only remain shut but also repulsed her, sending her crushing down, repeatedly, on the floor. Baracco and Manna added more action later in the play to show Porzia’s suicide, which is only reported in Shakespeare’s play. Blood-red stains on Porzia’s hands and face, as well as the violence inflicted on Calpurnia’s body, were stark reminders that the type of power so forcefully critiqued by Bruto and Cassio affects the public as well as the private lives not only of those who crave it but also, and tragically, of those who resist it.

While some of the stage images may have remained impenetrable to members of the audience who do not speak Italian, the production made a lasting impression, and nothing, I think, more powerfully than the angular, broken bodies of the soldiers in Bruto’s army, who, wrapped up in trench coats with their faces covered, did not shrink from killing his leader when he asks them to at the end of the play. In fact, they stabbed him several times, thus giving the audience the climactic killing of another charismatic but flawed individual, who died admitting that ‘ho frainteso tutto’ (‘I got it all wrong’).

Dr Sonia Massai
Reader in Shakespeare Studies, Department of English
King’s College, London  

This post also appears as part of The Year of Shakespeare project. Click this link to see the post and read more about the project.