Skip to main content

JC at the RSC

The BBC recently televised the RSC's 2012 production of Julius Caesar. It was very good, apparently. So, having (typically) failed to catch it on iPlayer…we did one better, and made the trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, just in time for the second-to-last performance. Ha, I may yet meet my spontaneity quota for the year after all.

It was stunning…the modern African setting (which did not feel forced or stretched at any point) was perfect excuse for some spectacularly vibrant music and dance. Indeed, this was how the play opened --the streets of 'Rome' streaming with a partying public fervently celebrating the forthcoming arrival of the beloved statesman.

But the power and popularity Caesar has amassed threatens the constitution of the Republic, and there is an atmosphere of growing unease amongst the senators and even between his close friends:
    What means this shouting? I do fear, the people
    Choose Caesar for their king.
    Ay, do you fear it?
    Then must I think you would not have it so.
    I would not, Cassius; yet I love him well.
Cassius openly laments (and personally resents) that a mere man should be afforded such god-like status:
Caesar said to me 'Darest thou, Cassius, now
Leap in with me into this angry flood,
And swim to yonder point?' Upon the word,
Accoutred as I was, I plunged in
And bade him follow; so indeed he did.
The torrent roar'd, and we did buffet it
With lusty sinews, throwing it aside
And stemming it with hearts of controversy;
But ere we could arrive the point proposed,
Caesar cried 'Help me, Cassius, or I sink!'
I, as Aeneas, our great ancestor,
Did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder
The old Anchises bear, so from the waves of Tiber
Did I the tired Caesar. And this man
Is now become a god, and Cassius is
A wretched creature and must bend his body,
If Caesar carelessly but nod on him.

His frustration appears not so much with Caesar but with 'the people' who so readily submit to be enslaved:
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
This theme plays out vividly in the crowd scenes -- Caesar is commanding their worship, not through tyranny (at least, not according to this production's reading) but through the force of his personality working on their pre-disposition to idolisation. A strong, unnerving undercurrent of mob mentality pervades the events of the play. So, when Brutus announces, with great, stirring conviction, that Caesar has been 'sacrificed' in the interests of Rome ("Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?") the crowd are quick to concur, in spite of their previous ardent allegiance to the dead man, and immediately re-direct all that ardency towards Brutus, so undermining the very argument by which he sought to justify himself to them. Of course, they don't come close to noticing that this is what they've done; they seem (corporately) incapable of following a notion through to its logical conclusion, or of placing any sort of check on the momentum of the occasion.

All of which is even more dramatically realised in what happens next, as Mark Antony takes centre stage to deliver the funeral speech. Boy, does he deliver it (especially as played by Ray Fearon!) -- sweat, and spit, and blood, and tears, and lots of shouting; psychological manipulation ("Brutus is an honourable man" -- to which the African accent was so well suited I can't imagine hearing it any other way); nostalgia, as he holds up Caesar's blood stained mantel ("I remember // The first time ever Caesar put it on; // 'Twas on a summer's evening, in his tent, // That day he overcame the Nervii") before launching into a highly visceral account of each stab-rent tear. And, of course, by the end, the crowd is once more praising Caesar full-vigour and baying, now, for the blood of Brutus. *Sigh*.

Historically, the assassination did not save the Republic but sparked a series of civil wars culminating in the establishment as Emperor of Caesar's adopted heir Octavius (eventually known as Augustus), in 27 AD. The stability of the Empire was reinforced by the increasingly demi-god status of its head: 'Caesar is Lord'.

Fast-forward 60-odd years and crowds amass around another charismatic figure, this time in Galilee, a far-flung corner of the widely-sprawling Empire. Jesus certainly seems to have caused a stir wherever he went. It is no wonder, given the reports of his miraculous abilities to heal the sick and multiply food for the masses, that there were murmurs of making him king. For starters, what military aspirations could not be realised with an infinite supply of food and a re-generateable army? Could that thought (or something like it) have been in the back of a few minds? But such worldly ambitions were far from Jesus' agenda [1], and chapter 6 of John's gospel describes him very deliberately evading those who would instate him by force.

A while later, Jesus entered Jerusalem for the Passover feast, on what is now remembered as Palm Sunday:
The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!” 
His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him." (John 12:12-18)

'The whole world has gone after him' -- much like Julius Caesar. But, also much like Caesar, he had his enemies, and they were not without sway. Even among 'the twelve' was one prepared to sell him out -- perhaps disillusioned by his unwillingness to pursue an agenda of worldly influence.[2] By the end of the week Jesus was in custody and the fickle crowds were shouting something very different:
From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he delivered him over to them to be crucified. (John 19:12-16)
So determined were certain factions within the Jewish ruling parties to bring down this man who threatened everything they held dear that they would even appeal to the honour of Caesar -- the occupying enemy so far as they were concerned -- as a means of establishing the 'justice' they craved (approval from the Roman authorities was required for the death sentence to be imposed). And, much as Shakespeare depicts Caesar, and then Brutus, and then Mark Antony doing, they accordingly 'stirred up the crowds' (see, e.g., Mark 15) in order to force the hand of Pilate.

By all worldly expectation Jesus' crucifixion should have been the end of the story. Remarkably, though, his followers would not let up. Far from cutting their losses -- appointing a replacement (one of Jesus' brothers, perhaps, as many other Messiah movements did in the event of their leader's death) or disbanding in disappointment -- they claimed that Jesus had appeared, alive, to them. To many of them, in fact, on many occasions (Matthew 28:8-20, Mark 16:9-18, Luke 24:13-53, John 20-21, 1 Corinthians 15:3-7). Sceptical explanations abound -- mass hallucinations, deceptions, later interpolations -- but it is hard to escape the fact that, whatever the origin of the report, it certainly affected the disciples deeply. Deeply enough to live and give their lives for a new message: 'Jesus is Lord' -- transferring to their master the very titles claimed by Caesar. And many others echoed their profession; the church grew and spread rapidly, in spite of persecution, and eventually awakened the frustration and disapproval of Rome.

Pliny the Younger was an imperial magistrate/governor in Italy and Turkey, experiencing first-hand the challenge of the Christian 'threat to public order'. In this excerpt from a letter to the Emperor Trajan (who ruled 98--112BC) Pliny writes about his quandaries over appropriate discipline:
"Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. All of these also worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden secret societies. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but a perverse and extravagant superstition."(Pliny the Younger XCVII. To the Emperor Trajan [full text])
It is fascinating to read such an indisputably dispassionate description of what it meant to be an early Christian. Already, Christ was recognised as one to be worshipped. Already, 'true' Christians were marked by their allegiance to Him -- unswayed by threat of persecution, unwilling to dilute or divide their worship and fidelity by deference to other 'gods' or to the Emperor. Moreover, they were known as people of integrity and intentionality, committed to living lives 'worthy of the calling they had recieved'. (Philippians 1:25-30). No longer following the crowd, no longer swayed by convenience, fear, or pure instinct, but taking a stand, and a costly one at that.

Of course, it's not always like that today. Sometimes, for us Christians, our very allegiance can be unchecked and unchallenged -- the product of living in a 'Christian' society, or being brought up in a Christian family, or having an affection or aesthetic preference for church tradition or other Christian stuff. It is, or at least can be, fairly easy to be a Christian, especially if by that we simply mean one of a certain type of socially-acceptable crowd. Of course I am grateful that, in this country, at this time, there is no great persecution to speak of; and I'd like to become more mindful of/prayerful for those Christians in other places for whom such is not the case. But I am also keen to ensure that our social acceptability is not the product of conformity: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:2); "…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16); "Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life" (Philippians 2:14-16).

Somewhere along the line, my allegiance to Jesus should be making a tangible difference. In particular situations, or over a period of time, it should not be possible for someone to confuse me for a person not following Him. Hmmm. Challenging. Especially when I know so many truly lovely, amazing, wonderful, non-Christians whom I care for dearly and respect and admire and who repeatedly put me to shame in the 'being a good and lovely person' stakes.

Back then, I suppose, as ever, to grace! 'Cos I don't think that that 'difference' of which I speak is about being better. More like a recognition of dependency, a submission to Jesus' Lordship, a cessation of trying to do things in my own strength in order to make way for His transforming power in and through me. When I stop trying to compete for a moment with all the 'better' people in my life, I am much more able to see the evidence for His power in my brokenness, and that really does excite me and inspire me with hope.

Note that this really does require that I follow Jesus, not the 'Jesus-crowd'. Otherwise I remain in danger of simply trying to conform my behaviour in order to reinforce my position in a social clique, or of taking reassurance from other people's beliefs and conclusions without exercising my own faith or thinking for myself.

Such dangers are by no means unique to the 'Jesus-crowd'. The 'no-thanks-Jesus-crowd' is still the larger of the two, and it is all too easy to dismiss Christianity on the basis of majority opinion. It is possible to find any number of bases for disbelief without having to do any actual individual thinking, and the fact that there's usually a good solid number congregating round a chosen stance can be very reassuring. Surely some one has done the requisite leg-work -- why waste energy replicating the mental exertion of others? It all sounds convincing enough; subscribe today and instantly free up time and headspace for more appealing occupations... Hmmm. I can empathise with the temptation to outsource reason, but 'the crowd' doesn't seem to have all that great a track record...

[1] As he would later tell Pilate: "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36).

[2] There are echoes of Jesus' words: "Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss" (Luke 22:48) in Caesar's famous "Et tu, Brute".


too much to comment on but next time you feel like a spontaneous trip to the theatre if there's space count me in :D
Thanks for writing