William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," written in 1599, has been performed repeatedly since its creation partly because of its endlessly compelling exploration of power's corruption. During times of crisis especially the play is brought out as an allegory for contemporary issues.
Accordingly, the production of "Julius Caesar" at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, running through March 17, forces audiences to question its motives. The Abbey claims that they are heralding the Irish election year with the show, but there's a more global bent to it.
This production's contemporary angles aren't necessarily found in the title character's corruptions. Caesar can still be read as a Nixonian despot bent on absolute domination, but now the character's willy-nilly glibness towards the Roman senate, played up to brilliant comic effect here by Robert O'Mahoney, paints him with a Dubya brush.
And while Caesar is worth noting in contemporary terms, he takes a backseat to Marc Antony in this production. Antony is presented as Caesar's greatest promoter, and his reaction to Caesar's assassination provides the production's contemporaneousness.
At the start of the third act, Brutus (Declan Conlon) orates to the Roman people about why he and his co-conspirators killed Caesar. He got too drunk on power, Brutus says, ultimately appealing to the deep-rooted desire for freedom over slavery to convince them that Caesar had to go. The people react by calling Caesar tyrannical and desire Brutus as Rome's new leader, a post he's loathe accepting.
Marc Antony (Aidan Kelly) follows Brutus with a eulogy as reverential as it is manipulative. Antony initially laments the unfortunate but perhaps necessary loss of Caesar, citing Brutus's honorability as reason enough to accept his motives. But as he continues, Antony repeatedly returns to the word "honorable," twisting it into the mob's psyche, wedging it between them and their love of Brutus, turning the mob against the man they were just moments earlier cheering for.
Anyone attuned to the current political climate can recognize how words are weaponized, used to annihilate an opponent and influence the collective consciousness towards a position a single-minded person would find abhorrent. Antony's speech is more than simple posturing, it's spin-doctoring of the highest order. Kelly delivers Shakespeare's sweeping monologue with such faux-humility and impassioned gusto that Antony is constructed as a prototypical post-9/11 politician.
An exceptional moment of contemporization doesn't make a complete play, but in this case Antony's speech salvages this production. The Abbey's "Caesar" suffers mightily in the second half from director Jason Byrne's ill-conceived, overly-ambitious space/time bending adaptation. The play begins in Ancient Rome, presented fairly historically, while after the intermission it moves to the gnarled war zone of the Western Front, where electricity and phonographs are present, as Brutus and Antony are clashing over Rome.
This seemingly unmotivated chronological amalgamation is sloppy and nearly halts the momentum propelling "Caesar" toward its conclusion. Fortunately, the inherent majesty crafted by Shakespeare in the first half saves the production from itself and is enough to conveniently forget what follows.