Mixed Media: ‘Julius Caesar’ & ‘Philip Glass at 75: Koyaanisqatsi’

Julius Caesar

Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy Julius Caesar was recently staged by the RSC at the Noel Coward Theatre in London. Director Gregory Doran has used an all-black British cast and transposed the plays setting to a modern African state. This play in particular had political resonance for imprisoned ANC leader Nelson Mandela. In 1937 the Mercury Theatre production by Orson Welles drew a specific analogy between Caesar and Fascist dictator Mussolini. The new RSC version makes subtle references to African dictators Mugabe, Mobutu and Amin, and also the recent ‘Arab Spring’.

The central theme of the play is the conflict between republicanism and tyranny, and the political necessity of assassinating a dictator (‘an emerging adder’). Caesar, played with a superior dignity by Jeffrey Kissoon, is a demagogue who is arrogant (‘immortal Caesar’) and posturing, speaks of himself in the third person, compares himself to the northern star, and whose political hubris means he will not ‘beware the ides of March.’

The tragic protagonist of the play is really Plutarch’s ‘angel,’ Brutus, ‘the noblest Roman of them all,’ played with humanity by Paterson Joseph. It is Brutus’s inner conflict between his love for Caesar, and his love for Rome and its republican ideals that form the psychological drama of the play. Brutus is full of personal integrity; he commands trust, friendship, love and devotion in others; he is gracious with friends, guards, servants and has a tender relationship with his wife Portia. The funeral oration by Brutus is rational: ‘not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.’

In contrast to Brutus, Mark Antony, played with a beguiling Machiavellianism by Ray Fearon, is all emotional political opportunism. The political mistakes by Brutus of not killing Antony and also allowing Antony’s funeral oration (‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’) clearly highlight Brutus’s lack of political guile, and are the cause of his ultimate defeat, death and the end of republican Rome.

Shakespeare based his play on Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, but an interesting source that Gregory Doran could have used is Suetonius Lives of the Caesars which identified Julius Caesar as ‘every woman’s husband and every man’s wife.’ Caesar’s rival triumvir, Crassus is portrayed in a homoerotic vein in Spartacus by Kubrick.

Shakespeare rejects ‘deus ex machina’ and portrays humans in charge of their destiny (‘Men at some time are masters of their fates’) which recalls Marx in The 18thBrumaire of Louis Bonaparte; ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please.’


Philip Glass at 75: Koyaanisqatsi

To celebrate the 75th birthday of Philip Glass, the Barbican screened the 1982 Godfrey Reggio film Koyaanisqatsi, accompanied by ‘minimalist’ composer Philip Glass and his Ensemble, the Britten Sinfonia, and the Trinity Laban Chamber Choir performing a newly expanded orchestral version of his score for the film. Glass worked with Ravi Shankar in 1966 on music for the film, Chappaqua, but Koyaanisqatsi was his first film score and was followed by scores for Mishima and Kundun. Glass wrote it is ‘music with repetitive structures.’

Koyaanisqatsi was inspired by Marxist ‘Situationist’ Guy Debord, and David Monongye, Hopi Native American traditional leader. It is memorable for the acceleration of time lapse photography and slow motion filming.

The film opens with the pictographs of paleo-indian rock art at Horseshoe Canyon in Utah, and Glass uses a basso profundo vocal reciting ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ over a sombre four-bar organ bass line; then the image changes to the launching of a Saturn V rocket. Organic is haunting woodwind, cellos and horns over film of the desert landscape of Monument Valley. Resource is a looping organ over images of the rock formations in Mono Lake in California then film of mining operations, oil pipelines, electricity pylons and the Glen Canyon Dam. It concludes with an atomic bomb explosion and the ominous mushroom cloud. Vessels is choral and organ looping with images of sunbathers on a beach in the shadow of a nuclear generating plant, a long take of Boeing 747 jumbo jets taxiing in the heat haze, and concludes with strafe bombing in Vietnam. Pruitt-Igoe is cellos and choral looping with images of Harlem during the two day electricity blackout in New York City in 1977 which was notorious for looting, arson, vandalism, theft and 4,500 arrests. This is followed by footage of the demolition in 1975 of the modernist Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in St Louis.

Slow-Mo People features portraits of people, notably the bouffant hair of Las Vegas croupiers. The Grid is horns, organ, choral looping, gradually accelerating to a frenetic pace. At its fastest a synthesizer plays the bass line ostinato. The music accompanies film of factory production lines, traffic on freeways, video games, and rush hour pedestrians. The combined music and film evokes alienation and exploitation in modern capitalist society. Prophecies is a quiet reflection on victims of capitalism such as street drinkers, beggars, and homeless people. The film closes with the launch and explosion of the Atlas Centaur rocket in 1962.

Koyaanisqatsi is Hopi language for ‘life out of balance’ or ‘a state of life that calls for another way of living’.

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