*. Over the years there have been programs in a number of different countries involving prison inmates putting on Shakespeare. I don’t know how many of these have been filmed, but there was a version of Macbeth done in a Belfast prison called Mickey B that came out in 2004. And then there’s this film, Caesar Must Die.
*. I can see the attraction of Macbeth and Julius Caesar for prison theatre programs. Both are stories about the price of ambition and rising to the top in an age of violent tribal politics. There are several scenes in Caesar Must Die where the cast (who were actual inmates) reflect on how real it all seems. Does it help that they also look like a pretty rough bunch? One suspects the real Brutus was a tough guy, as much as he was the noblest Roman of them all. You can play Shakespeare different ways, emphasizing different aspects of the same character.
*. This parallel between modern crime gangs and Shakespeare’s vision of power politics is not, however, the film’s major conceit. Instead, I would say what drives Caesar Must Die is the liberating power of the dramatic imagination.
*. I don’t mean anything fancy by that. Just the common observation that we feel free to act/behave differently when we wear a mask. Inhabiting the roles in the play does, at least for a little while, set the cast free. Hence the bitter irony as the one-time Cassius says to us at the end “Since I have known art, this cell has turned into a prison.” Because knowing art is liberating, to have known it is to recognize the limits and constraints of our daily existence. I mean, we could say the same thing as Cassius as we leave the theatre.
*. That transforming power of the imagination works on the setting as well. This is a staple of Shakespeare productions, going back to the days of the Bard himself. Most famously, the Chorus in Henry V asks us in the Prologue “Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?” In both the Olivier and Branagh versions of Henry V we are introduced to the play in a way that draws attention to the stage, before dissolving the real world as we are absorbed into the world of the play.
*. I was surprised at how well this works in Caesar Must Die. We begin on stage, and in colour, before switching to rehearsals in prison that nevertheless achieve moments of the same kind of absorption that we get in those Henry V movies. The walls of the prison are still there, but they are transformed. We are in Shakespeare’s drama. There’s a brilliant part when Caesar gets killed and the prisoners all scatter, just like you’d see on a prison show like Oz. Some prison officials, observing from on high, muse over how all this will work out. It’s hard to tell if we’re still in the play or not. The blending of Shakespeare’s story and the setting is perfect.
*. Another good example is the set piece of the funeral orations. Even with the audience watching from behind bars this doesn’t feel at all like we’re in a prison, but rather in a public square. But, and this is important for how the film works, even when we do think of the bars and are aware of the setting we still think it works because what we’re seeing is prison politics in action. Either way, we don’t think we’re watching a play.
*. The directing team of the brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have been at it a long time. I believe their first film was in 1960. It’s natural at such a point in one’s career to become reflective, to want to examine a little more closely the very nature of drama and film. I think this is what Caesar Must Die is really about, more than it is a political film along the lines of Marat/Sade, for example. I began by thinking of Marat/Sade but by the end the movie I had more in mind was Waiting for Guffman, with the amateur cast of the city theatrical enjoying a kind of dramatic day-parole.
*. Is that depressing? I don’t think so. Whether it’s with the citizens of Blaine, Missouri or the inmates here I think such movies affirm one of our better human traits: the ability to see ourselves as potentially being something more or someone different, and imagine ourselves past present circumstances of despair.