Today’s Top Moment of the year is one that still comes up in Damian’s Twitter timeline, many months after it was first released, a brilliant short video of Damian reading Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech from Julius Caesar for The Guardian’s video series Shakespeare Solos. Several lit profs have tweeted thanks to Damian, remarking that they use his speech when they teach the play. Actually literature professors and acting teachers alike have found something remarkable in Damian’s prescient delivery. It’s a master class, both on the role of the speech within the play and on acting.
First, some context from my own memory of reading Julius Caesar as an undergrad, knowing the story, and more recently, from the excellent HBO series, Rome. 🙂 In this speech Antony is speaking before the man who first drew the blow to murder Caesar, sent the dagger into his belly, and to the rest of the Roman Senate who joined in, mob style, to strike their own blows on the dying Caesar. All of this while Antony was powerless to stop it and obligated to resolve himself to the inevitability of what had to happen. (Come to think of it: the emotion behind the speech is very much similar to what we recently heard from our President as he seeks a smooth transition of power: generous, forgiving, and resolved to a level of grace that belies what we all may or not have buried in the ground this year) So Antony speaks, not taking sides, a part of him understanding why the Senate did what it did to finally oust and destroy a ruler who was getting too big. (Caesar had become a dictator, dictator perpetuo, and the Senate was afraid the Republic would fall.)
Antony was Caesar’s closest friend, he was his go-to guy. On the one hand, Antony wants to protect his own ass in this speech by not angering the Senate with too passionate a defense of the man they just ousted by murder. On the other hand, he wants to honor and mourn his friend.
Damian starts Antony’s speech with a mild smile, conciliatory, apologetic even, showing empathy for the murderers. Whenever I read Shakespeare I sort of translate in my head to colloquial language. Indulge me please as I do so to translate this speech: I’ll leave Shakespeare’s actual words in quotes, and everything else is my paraphrasing.
Antony starts: Caesar was evil, they all know, and his evil will live on, but whatever goodness he had will be buried with him. That’s the way of the world. “So let it be with Caesar.” Subtext (which we won’t know till the end of the speech): Yes, I’ll agree with what you did, but not before I remind ya’ll that the guy wasn’t all that bad.
The noble Brutus hath told you that Caesar was ambitious.
Yep, he was, and that sucked. But, sure, fine.
Brutus is an honorable man, so are they all honorable men.
Pause and tone switch.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me.
Damian shows us Antony’s love for Caesar with his eyes. Ironic, perhaps, because Shakespeare, as it’s often on stage, is usually not played with the eyes. But since Damian knows this is a different way of performing Shakespeare, he lets his mind, face and voice tell the story. Antony repeats:
But Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man.
Here, Damian’s voice and eyes have become just a touch colder. He goes on: Caesar filled your treasure chests with loot, assuring all members of this nation wealth and prosperity. He wept for the poor and tried to assure that they’d be fed.
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff, but Brutus said he was ambitious and Brutus is an honorable man.
Anger is rising to the surface. Antony says: You all remember me trying to present him with a crown, right? Three times? And he refused it? All three times.
Was this ambition? Yet Brutus says he was ambitious, and, sure, he is an honorable man.
This is the fourth time he’s repeated the same phrase. Good old Willy Shakes loved patterns and symmetry. Anger has now reached the surface. There’s rage in the eyes, and the words are delivered through gritted teeth. But let me check the anger, his face says. I’m not here to argue against what Brutus said or doubt his inherent honor. But, let me tell ya’ll what I “do know.” You all are the ones who named him leader in perpetuity. You all are the ones who wanted to crown him king.
You all did love him once. Not without cause.
You all had reason to love him and to support him. So why not cry now that he is gone? Why not mourn for him now? You all have become animals wanting to tear him limb from limb and to defend his murderers!
You’re not thinking!
Men have lost their reason.
Damian takes the anger to the very edge. Then: Hold on, let me pull this back. Damian’s smiling non-smile says: Sorry to lose my cool there for a hot minute.
Bear with me. My heart is in the coffin. There with Caesar. And I must pause till it come back to me.
My friend is dead and it hurts deeply. I need a minute. Antony out.
Granted, this is one of Shakespeare’s simpler speeches. Quite easy to dissect and understand the words and see the patterns: The repetitions, the counterpoint of the murderers’ “reason” vs Antony’s “heart”. Even the subtext is pretty obvious if you know the relationships and the story. And, many actors have spoken these words. (The internet tells me 11 actors have played Antony on film alone) There is no doubt of the structural soundness of the words. So, it’s solely the emotion behind the words which has varied from actor to actor. Some actors have bellowed the anger, letting their thunderous lungs do all the work. Some have twitched their mouths or shed a tear at the grief.
Damian neither bellowed nor cried. You see what he did here, right? He used the closeness of the camera to great effect to deliver the anger in increments. He took the repetitions and scaled his release of the anger accordingly. Sort of like a chemical titration, where one liquid is slowly, drop by drop, added to another, until just the perfect moment when the indicator liquid changes color and the reaction has reached an endpoint. Okay, that maybe a stretchy metaphor but it’s the thing that comes to mind when describing such a delivery. I guess I mean to say, he played the anger quite scientifically, governed by “reason”. Then for the grief, the “heart” part of the speech, he plays it as the undercurrent flowing beneath all the words, with his eyes and by letting his voice go soft.
Hell, yes, Damian Lewis needs to do more Shakespeare. On stage, on screen, or even a succession of little bites such as this one speech from Julius Caesar. He needs to do anything and everything, where he is afforded the space to play the full spectrum of emotional truths Shakespeare wrote for us.
Here’s to Damian doing more Shakespeare in the years to come. It would be wonderful to have at least one Shakespeare moment on our Top Moments list every year, wouldn’t it? And here’s to the lot of us being around in 40 years time or however long it is until Damian eventually plays my absolute favorite of the canon, King Lear, as every great actor must.