Caesar Must Die utilises some documentary elements. The Tavianas never become characters within their own work, but the cinematography is too perfectly composed, the editing too refined and the prisoners who become the film’s subjects perhaps not candid enough to label as ‘fly on the wall’. In many ways, it feels more a drama about a group of actors than a documentary, presenting all the anxiety and the sense of wanting to kill each other that can come with the process of acting.
But it never feels theatrical. None of the actors have microphones; there are no giant LCD screens projecting the performances to a stadium. The footage of the play itself rarely feels like a filmed performance of a play, but it engrosses the viewer as if it were a filmic version. The auditions convey none of the brash, bright colours of The X Factor (2004-present) or Britain’s Got Talent (2006-present), nor the humour and awkwardness of the auditions for big budget films.
These are not the amateur actors that place a rehearsal between their day job and looking after the kids. Prison life is dull, cast in monochrome. The theatre brings colour to their lives, but only on the one night of performance, before they return back to the mundane in the space of minutes. These are men who have been imprisoned for years, if not decades, some of whom are on life sentences. Their days are a routine of staring at the ceiling, eating food, perhaps the odd exercise, perhaps the odd chore, perhaps a book from the library. They have few distractions; it becomes their life, not a hobby. The outside world exists as poorly applied wallpaper, temporarily bringing colour as we look out upon the sea that they will never touch again.
We see the prisoners relate their own experiences to the characters in the play. Not as an exercise by the director, but in their own time and in their own understanding of it, understanding if far better than an everyday actor from the outside. Their own experiences transform them into Roman legionaries; they know the frustration of not being able to see their wife, or the pain of bloody murder, or of drug trafficking. In the close-ups, you can see the pain behind their eyes. When they speak of revolt, it is also the secret wishes of the prisoners themselves. They want libertas.
In many ways, because they embody the characters, it feels more a gritty modern adaptation of Julius Caesar (1599), the confined mazed corridors of the prison standing in for the streets of Rome. The focus isn’t on the rehearsal room, but on the actors performing amongst themselves in their cells, or in the courtyard. At the end of the performance of a scene, we may see a script page, or a discussion about a character’s motivations, or an argument between the real people that carries the same intensity as the characters they are performing. Reality and the fictional characters are blurred. But it acts only as an interjection to the narrative of the play, which we are carried forward through in narrative order until it reaches its stage conclusion.