The play opens with Brutus inspecting the statue of Caesar — the only thing to adorn the stage other than a purple carpet leading from the statue into the yard area where the bee and the other groundlings stood.
What's a groundling, you say? It's the absolute heart and soul of the Globe Theatre!
Historically, a groundling was someone who could not afford to pay for a seat at one of the three levels of Shakespeare's Globe. They would watch the performance from the 'pit', also known as the yard - a large space directly below the stage - for about one penny (the equivalent of a pound in 2022). Groundlings were often crammed closely together to squeeze in as many people as possible. The bee was a proud groundling at this performance, enjoying the best view of the stage from the yard for only £5. (All your questions about being a groundling at Shakespeare's Globe are answered in this article).
The Globe Theatre's Julius Caesar opens with a tone of discomposure and disdain at the status quo.
Brutus is perturbed by the statue, and even more so by the sycophancy among the masses towards it and the person it represents. She (yes, she — the gullible Brutus and cunning Cassius were played by Anna Crichlow and Charlotte Bate respectively) gazes at the audience suspiciously with knitted brows, her discomfiture setting the tone for the chaotic events to follow in Shakespeare's beloved tale of Julius Caesar and the end of Roman democracy.
It is not just the Globe Theatre's stage that is bare-bones.
The minimalist design of the play extends to the cast and costumes too; the play is a rather stripped-down affair with a cast of eight playing innumerable characters. As much as the bee applauds the versatility displayed by the actors in tackling their many varied roles, the bee did lose track of who was whom more than once.
Diane Page cleverly had the standing audience double up as the gathered people of Rome in the story of Julius Caesar.
In fact, the bee had the fortune of shaking hands with Julius Caesar himself (compellingly played by Dickon Tyrrell) when he waded across the sea of groundlings to get to the stage, stopping every now and then to say 'Welcome to Rome' to a groundling. The bee certainly did not mind being co-opted into the play as one among the impressionable masses of Rome, and wondered if the audience would be called on to rise up against the assassins Brutus and Cassius. It turns out the audience would not be granted such an important role. However, as Caesar lay dying on the floor after being stabbed by the conspirators, he tried frantically to reach for an audience member near the stage, ostensibly to hold her hand and seek her assistance somehow. The kind lady looked like she did not know where to look. It was amusing to watch, although it did undermine the tragedy, the betrayal and the gore of the assassination.
Crichlow and Bate beautifully weave the feminine into the power struggles one might normally associate with toxic masculinity
The bee thought that the experiment with gender worked beautifully. Brutus and Cassius delivered riveting performances as women, and the explicit change of gender pronouns throughout the play was refreshing, except in Mark Antony's speech when he kept saying "She [Brutus] is an honourable man", which the bee thought was awkward. Why couldn't Mark Antony just say 'Brutus is an honourable woman'? Especially when the duo kept referring to one another as 'sister'?
On the subject of Brutus and Cassius referring to themselves as 'sister', this review by Gary Naylor at The Arts Desk makes the interesting point that although having the two women refer to one another as 'sister' is the natural equivalent in English of having male characters refer to one another as 'brother', the political, cultural and emotional connotations attached to 'sister' are completely different from those attached to 'brother'. Naylor goes on to say:
Aesthetically, politically and narratively, the choice to bring the invisible women of Rome to the stage in this way, fatally undermines the play’s structure.
The bee agrees partly, but would not go as far as saying that the casting of women fatally undermines the play's message.
The most interesting bit of any production of Julius Caesar for the bee is the scene immediately after Julius Caesar's assassination.
The survival of the duo depends, naturally, on their ability to speak to the masses and canvas support for their 'honourable' cause, to explain to the people that their vile, bloodthirsty actions are in fact driven by the most noble intention of protecting democracy in Rome. Historically, productions have taken their liberties with this scene. For example, a production at the Sydney Theatre Company in Australia in 2021 is known for having Brutus and Cassius roll on the floor laughing uncontrollably right after the assassination. Cassius even uses Caesar's blood to draw a heart. (Here is The Guardian's review of the Sydney production of Julius Caesar)
In contrast, in the current production at the Globe Theatre, Anna Crichlow's Brutus had a calm but commanding stage presence, and she maintains her poise both during and in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. The bee has witnessed productions in which Brutus is more frenzied, intense and dramatic, but Crichlow's rendition of a rather impassive and composed Brutus worked equally well for the bee. Brutus is, after all, a rather credulous character in Shakespeare's original play, so it was refreshing to see the character have an oddly heightened conviction in her own views, neither agonising much over the decision of whether to join the conspirators, nor displaying great remorse after she carried out the assassination.
Anna Crichlow's Brutus mirrors modern politicians and their self-aggrandisement
Anna Crichlow's portrayal of the character Brutus finds a parallel in the way modern politics is carried out; politicians expressing self-doubt or second thoughts about their position on an issue are doing nothing more than feeding their opponents with fodder to attack them. A veneer of concrete, unassailable self-confidence pays dividends in the politics of today; to pretend otherwise is career suicide. That is a message that came across in a strong way in the Globe's production of Julius Caesar.
In all, the bee thoroughly enjoyed being a groundling. It appreciates Diane Page for leaving the stage with a minimalist design that puts great weight on the actors' shoulders to convey the essence of the play's place and time - and they did. The bee also liked the female Cassius and Brutus experiment, except for a few inconsistencies in gender grammar here and there.
Watched 7 May 2022 at Shakespeare's Globe, London.