Julius Caesar – September 2006

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Sean Holmes

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 29th September 2006

As Steve put it afterwards, this was effectively a radio play on stage. Not as a criticism, more as an appropriate way of describing the production. The set was non-existent, apart from microphones dangling from above (at first I thought they might be light bulbs). We could just see the musicians at the back of the stage, to left and right. Props were brought on as necessary, but were few and far between. A tailor’s dummy served as Caesar’s statue, and for the storm scene we had actual rain and a thunder board at the back. Otherwise, all was created by lights and acting. When Cassius and Brutus withdraw to Brutus’ tent, a square of light delineates it for us – a lovely touch, very simple and effective. I gather some people have been very unhappy with this set up, but it worked fine for me – text, text, and more text.

This also meant there was no time wasted in scene changes – the action flowed very quickly, and you had to keep your wits about you. The costumes were also simple. The opening revellers had vibrant coloured robes, the soldiers wore red tops and leggings, Roman senators had togas, and the women had simple shift dresses. For the assassination, all white robes were used, with the togas being made of some wipe-clean, non-absorbent stuff. Very practical, even if the slight sheen of the surface did look a little strange. Lots of gore was used, naturally enough, and there was even a small patch left at the front of the stage for the second half – normally these things are scrupulously cleaned up at the interval, but not this time.

The play opens with the revellers enjoying themselves with some Asian-sounding music and dance. It looked for all the world as though they’d been so impressed by the DASH Dream, that they thought they’d try a bit of Asian culture in this production as well. It struck me as out of keeping, especially when I’d seen the rest of the production, but then there’s many aspects of Roman culture I don’t know about. Anyway, the rabble is cleared by two Roman senators, and although I could hear the lines perfectly well, I didn’t feel there was much going on with the characters on stage. The rabble just did as they were told, and there was no sense of them reacting to the senators’ telling off, either to grumble or to be ashamed. This lack of reaction permeated the play, so that it was more like a rehearsed reading at times. However, the lines were delivered clearly, and so I got a great deal out of this production, despite the unusual style of performance.

For the next scenes, Caesar’s arrival, and Cassius’ wooing of Brutus, etc., the staging was interesting. Cassius and Brutus were left at the front of stage, with Caesar and the rest heading to the back. Those actors stayed there, in plain sight, and the cheering offstage was made more apparent by this group being lit at those points. It was very clear who was who and what was going on, including Cassius’ duplicity in seducing Brutus to his cause. The soothsayer was a bit disappointing. He crept up the ramp leading to the stage, reminding me of Hamlet’s ghost from a couple of years back, somewhat melodramatic in such a sparse production.

Brutus’ soliloquy was probably very good, but sadly I was seized with a coughing fit, out of the blue, and not only missed a lot of it, but probably spoiled things for some of the audience. Sorry. I felt terrible about it, not least because I wanted to get out of there to spare everyone, but the ramp to the stage was on the near side, blocking that exit, and I didn’t know if I could make it all the way along the row to the other aisle without causing even more of a disturbance. While I debated this, not an easy thing to do when I was trying not to choke, the fit started to ease, so I held on, but not before I’d had to let out several racking coughs. Not an experience I want to repeat anytime soon.

The plotting rattled on in the meantime, and again there was little background reaction to Brutus taking over the conspiracy and leading it down the path of virtuous failure. Cassius really should be doing more here, I feel, but at least the dialogue was crisp and intelligible. Off they go to encourage Caesar to go to the Senate, and the idea that he might lose out on the crown really got across, both to Caesar, and to the audience. Of course, he didn’t want to look like a total wimp either, but he might have put up with it if there hadn’t been anything at stake. The wipe-clean togas were a bit of a giveaway, but all went to script (and to history, for once), and soon Caesar lay dead, pumping blood like a vampire drive-through. The interval came soon after, following Mark Antony’s brief soliloquy over the corpse. So far, so good, though nothing spectacular.

One point to mention, though. During Antony’s speech, at the line “And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,” Caesar’s body did indeed rise up and stood there, joining in the speech, mouthing along to “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war”. The ghost then wandered off gradually, reappearing as required, leaving the bloody and torn toga to represent the corpse being shown to the masses. Interesting staging. We’ve seen before that there are limited ways to get a dead body off stage – they can either be carried off or walk off. Otherwise they just litter the place up (as in Venice Preserv’d, I seem to recall, at the Citizens, many years ago. And that was a small stage, gradually getting smaller as the bodies mounted up). This was as good a way of handling it as any other, and certainly got across the point that this was Caesar’s ghost we’re seeing, handy later on for those who don’t know the play.

The second half was where this production came to life. Antony’s manipulation of the populace was masterly, as usual, so much so that he had to rein back the riot he’d provoked to add the finishing touch – the details of Caesar’s will  which showed how much he’d loved the people of Rome. All balderdash, but when can you ever trust a politician? This was much more lively than anything that had gone before, and the whole production gained energy from it. Brutus’ magnanimity, fine in itself, is once again the conspirator’s Achilles’ heel, and civil war ensues.

I’ve mentioned the effective use of light to create Brutus’ tent. The scene between him and Cassius was well played, still not in as much detail as I’ve seen before, but with much more emotion evident. I especially noticed the mention of Portia’s death, and how it affected Cassius, genuinely, I think. It seemed odd to have Brutus then deny all knowledge of the event when the other generals gather to discuss strategy, but it looked like he was either unwilling to discuss the matter, or checking to see if the information was good. Most likely the former. Again, Brutus overrules Cassius in matters of strategy, and they head to their doom.

Caesar’s appearance to Brutus was simply done, with Caesar’s ghost standing at the back of the stage, and spotlit during his lines. The microphones that I mentioned at the start were used to good effect here, as they had been throughout the play, giving a bit of echo and amplification to the ghost’s voice.

The short scene with Antony, Octavius and Lepidus came over much better than I’ve heard before. It’s clear what’s going on, and also that Antony is as guilty of treachery in advance as the conspirators. Octavius seems to be playing his cards close to his chest, though from his comment ”some that smile have in their hearts, I fear, Millions of mischiefs”, it’s clear he views Antony much as Antony views Lepidus. All predators on the prowl.

The setting up of the battle scenes was excellent. A rush of soldiers across the stage, leaving battle debris behind them – in an instant we’re there. As soldiers die, they lie there, and when they’re needed as another character, they simply get up and join in again. Simple, effective, and with the earlier rise of Caesar, easy to accept. In some cases, soldiers have cloaks thrown about them, which they can throw off to become another character – Brutus, Cassius, etc. This speeds things up enormously, but despite the potential confusion of so many short scenes, the final act comes across very well, and was quite moving. The final tableau, of Octavius and Antony standing over the defeated Brutus’ body, echoes their earlier meeting, as Antony realises he’s got into bed with as ruthless an operator as himself, and starts to shake.

Although this production was lacking in some areas, I found it interesting and stimulating. It’s nice to see a completely different approach and get a new perspective, though I wouldn’t want to see so little passion in every production.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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