For even an inkling of what Italian enfant terrible director Romeo Castellucci is up to in this Societas Raffaello Sanzio production of his “Giulio Cesare,” it’s essential to read his notes on it since they elaborate considerably on the fact that it’s about “the power of rhetoric” and answer at least some of the questions the production itself leaves unanswered. According to the New Haven, Conn.-based Intl. Festival of Arts & Ideas, which has brought “Giulio Cesare” to the U.S., it has “drawn ecstatic praise and passionate denunciation in equal measure” worldwide.
It’s difficult to understand why, either way. This theatergoer wasn’t bored by it, but on the whole found it mildly pointless, a retro rather than avant exercise in old-hat surrealism presented in all high seriousness.
Castellucci’s theater isn’t an actors’ theater since he prefers to use nonprofessionals with outre physical characteristics (one cast member has the body of an out-of-condition sumo wrestler). And so he uses for the role of rhetorical Mark Antony a man who has had a laryngectomy, the hole in his throat clearly apparent, his voice a hard rasp. Why? Because Castellucci wanted “a laryngectomised man, as a mystagogue, as a prophet of a new voice … a voice which, consequently, is reborn, just started.” But doesn’t this undercut the whole point of rhetoric, which is the use of language effectively and persuasively? The irony of Castellucci’s choice just doesn’t work.
He begins his play with the actor playing Brutus introducing an endoscopy into his nose, throat and ear, projecting closeups of the interiors of them, notably of his vocal chords. Why? Because “our ‘Julius Caesar’ will be mainly Brutus the object-subject of a research on the organic source of the words … the proscenium would become a mouth.”
The production is performed in Italian with English surtitles. But language seems unimportant to Castellucci, his cast seldom projecting their comparatively few lines clearly, the dim, high-up English supertitles offering little help. There’s also an omnipresent soundscape of electronic and natural noises — including that of a train and its whistle, plus some music, screams, yelps and bumps — that does its best to demolish rhetoric. This is not a production for Shakespeare lovers.
Then there’s the production’s taxidermist credit. It results in a stuffed fox, which loses its tail at one point, and a stuffed cat, the head of which revolves furiously. A larger-than-life seahorse floats across the stage. It’s “the abyssal mount of the inept Brutus.” A live horse is brought onstage. A cast member paints the words “Mene tekel peres” on its side. Later the skeleton of a horse is trundled on. It neighs.
Act one of “Giulio Cesare” does bear some slight resemblance to Shakespeare and the historical events of the assassination of Julius Caesar. It’s played out on a white box of a set with a battering-ram center stage; when the set’s white drapes are removed they reveal walls of cement blocks.
During act one, an actor imbibes helium to alter his voice and sound like Donald Duck, and an elderly man is stripped naked and tenderly given a sponge bath, his feet dried with hair, thereby evoking Christ. A pile of discarded shoes, added to from time to time, evokes the Holocaust.
Who or what is the character known as … vskij? According to the director, he is “a master of classical rhetoric … the makeup of the actor playing …vskij should suggest the sensation of being in front of a statue of the Waxworks Museum, with a wax voice.”
If act one has a technically amateurish air about it, act two seems to come from a totally different sensibility. Its set is highly elaborate and visually impressive, though we’re given little chance to actually see it since it remains in semidarkness throughout. It appears to be a subterranean cave, walls shored up by wooden scaffolding, the stage floor littered with unidentifiable odds and ends, an hallucinatory, nightmarish visualization of the dark night of the souls of Brutus and Cassius, now played by two women.
Not much happens, though the soundscape grows ever-more chaotic.
If one of the aims of the Intl. Festival of Arts & Ideas is to widen the horizons of its audiences, it has done so with “Giulio Cesare” — insofar as it offers a glimpse of what at least some Europeans consider theatrically important at the moment. But once again the question why remains unanswered.