Sunday, 18 March 2012

Julius Caesar (dir. Herbert Wise, 1979)

This made-for-TV version of Julius Caesar was produced for the BBC's ambitious project, in the late 70s and early 80s, to produce television versions of all of Shakespeare's plays. It was tackled early on, and directed by Herbert Wise, who directed I, Claudius (and so looks disconcertingly like a strange alternate-world prequel to Clavdivs, in which everyone speaks Elizabethan English!). Wikipedia suggests Wise wanted to film it in Elizabethan dress, but doesn't provide a reference for this (and really, they didn't hire the director of I, Claudius for an Elizabethan version, did they?! Although to be fair, he had also directed an episode of Elizabeth R...).

I don't have a copy of the play on me, but the adaptation doesn't seem to have edited too much out of Shakespeare's play. It includes, of course, the famous incident in which Mark Antony offers Caesar a crown three times and Caesar refuses it. This incident took place at the festival of the Lupercalia. One detail that tends to get left out of film and television depictions of it is that Mark Antony was stark naked at the time, because he was taking part in the festival, and had to run around the Palatine wearing only a girdle, striking women with goat-skin. Cicero, who was presumably an eye-witness, makes quite a thing of it in the Second Philippic and Shakespeare actually alludes to the festival, though the lines are often cut. Here they are kept, so for once, Antony does actually appear undressed - not actually naked, but wearing only a loosely draped sheet. Trouble is, I'm not sure the audience have a clue why he seems to have forgotten to put his clothes on. And, without meaning any offence to Keith Michell, who plays Antony - Mark Antony has been played by Marlon Brando (when he was hot), Richard Burton and James Purefoy, but it's this guy we get to see naked?! At least it wasn't Sid James.

Antony is on the right, Caesar on the left

(To be fair, Purefoy is frequently naked in Rome. Unfortunately, they didn't do the Lupercalia scene, presumably because they needed to make room for Boring and Dodgy and their soap opera).

Caesar's death is fairly well handled, though he takes a while to actually bleed when he dies (maybe I've just been watching too much Spartacus). He does bleed profusely eventually, and bonus points for the gasp he gives as he's stabbed from behind and the breath is forced out of him. It sounds just like the sound made by Christopher Lee as Saruman when he's stabbed in the back in The Return of the King (extended version) which, according to Peter Jackson on the DVD extras, was based on Lee's experience of seeing this actually happen during World War Two. Brutus' bloody hand is a nice touch too - in fact all the assassins, as the dialogue suggests they should (Shakespeare had an obsession), have fantastically blood-covered hands, a whole gaggle of Lady Macbeths.

I quite like the way some of the monologues are done as voiceover. It must be quite hard work for the actors, who have to emote like mad to their own voiceover without mugging, as if in a silent film. It works well though, and is in keeping with the 'realistic' atmosphere set by the costumes and sets - no one stands around pontificating out loud, they just exclaim a bit when emotions are running really high.

Less effective are some of the painted backdrops, which have to be the least convincing bits of painted scenery since Brigadoon. The production uses similar sets and costumes to Clavdivs, and it would perhaps have done better to stick, as Clavdivs did, to interiors and small courtyards, rather than attempting some exteriors and exposing every brush-stroke on the paintwork. At least there's a bit of a crowd assembled for Mark Antony's speech and he doesn't have to give it to a sound effect, as Livia does in one episode of I, Claudius, or indeed anyone in any scene set in am amphitheatre.

Overall this adaptation is nicely done and reasonably well acted, but a bit bland. Unless you're particularly desperate to see Mark Antony with his shirt off (in which case you'd be better served watching Rome anyway), probably better to stick to the 1953 cinematic version. Still, this is a perfectly acceptable and fairly entertaining entry into the BBC's Shakespeare archive.


  1. I remember this series. They were quite well done and I think they did their best to stick to the whole of Shakespeare as possible. I don't remember this particular play, though. Actually after all these years, I only really remember Nicol Williamson as Macbeth and Roger Daltrey as the servant twins in The Comedy of Errors. But I do still have a good feeling about the series as a whole.

  2. I really like the idea (plus it means the library at the university had copies of all the plays, which was very helpful for my class on this play this week!). And I thought this was really... inoffensive! Plus, yay, Lupercalia. It just couldn't quite compare with the Marlon Brando version!

  3. I was wondering why Marc Antony wasn't wearing anything underneath that sheet, ha. Thanks for explaining.


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