By William Shakespeare
Directed by Andrew Hilton
Venue: Tobacco Factory
Date: Thursday 19th March 2009
Here we are, back at the Tobacco Factory, and it feels a longer gap than just a year. The place is much the same but the entrance to the auditorium has been moved. We now enter via the southwest corner, which is more straightforward and may help the ventilation(?). The only other set dressing is hexagonal grilles round the base of each pillar. Now for the play.
The Elizabethan costumes reminded me of the significance of this play in Shakespeare’s day – discussing politics publicly was a dangerous, but important part of that society. The fact that the two patricians at the start are dressed in the sombre black I associate with the Puritans adds to the effect; they are, after all, about to spoil the working men’s fun. The cobbler was entertaining, and I understood many more of his references about mending soles (souls) and how provocative such comments could have been.
Mark Anthony was a little difficult to understand at first, partly the grief and partly something strange in his accent that I haven’t been able to pin down yet. He was much better in the second half. I especially liked the way the rabble (all six of them) drowned out the start of Mark Anthony’s famous speech. “Friends, Romans, countrymen” was completely lost in the hubbub, and it took till “The evil that men do lives after them” before I could hear what he was saying. A little cowardly, perhaps? Or just showing how difficult his task was after Brutus had convinced the populace that Caesar had deserved to die? I think the latter, and here Mark Anthony did his job so well that he had to stop the riot twice before he finally unleashed the frenzied mob on Rome.
I noticed how in this production, the conspirators got things badly wrong in the first half. They assumed that Caesar was the problem, and yet it became clear that the people were the real source of Caesar’s power. Even though they were being manipulated, they could make or break the political careers of the ‘ruling’ classes. There was also an emphasis on the conspirators’ perception of their assassination as reducing the amount of time for Caesar to fear death. Yet Caesar had made it clear that he didn’t fear death, or anything else for that matter. Did the man protest too much, or was he being accurate? (Personally, I wouldn’t believe any of this shower if they told me the sky was blue on a sunny day.)
These ironies and contrasts were brought out throughout the performance. Calpurnia is barren (a dreadful thing for a Roman wife) while Portia is pregnant. Caesar is surrounded by false friends, while Brutus can hardly find anyone to help him die. Brutus accuses Caesar of putting the Republic at risk through wanting to be king, yet ends up acting so autocratically that he might as well have put a crown on his own head. His behaviour before the battle was so authoritarian that despite Brutus and Cassius’ strong friendship, it was clear the Republicans were doomed.
The Empire, however, was in much stronger fettle, even with the glaringly obvious fault lines. Lepidus is indeed a feeble makeweight, whom Anthony derides at great length while Octavius watches and listens. It dawned on me that Anthony is inadvertently talking about the way Octavius sees him, a bit like a fox telling a crocodile about the silly bunny he’s going to have for his lunch, not realising the crocodile is eyeing him up for dinner. At the end, with Brutus to bury, Octavius bagsies the body – from Anthony’s reaction he’s not happy with that, and is beginning to realise what a shrewd political animal he’s up against – and while Octavius leaves in one direction, Anthony, looking grim, heads off in another. All is not well in paradise.
Calpurnia was a little weak, I thought, but the other performances were good, with all the main characters being strong. Brutus’ deception when he denies knowing of Portia’s death struck me as a way of showing his strength to his generals, something Cassius understands although he doubts his own ability to carry it off so well.
The interval was taken after the assassination, to get the body off and the stage cleaned up. Something, a scabbard probably, flew into the audience as the conspirators made for Caesar – Steve headed it behind him (over ‘ere son, on me ‘ead), and it was retrieved during the interval.
Another good performance from SATTF, though not as strong as last year’s. We’re booked for Antony and Cleopatra in a few weeks, so it will be interesting to see how these productions relate to each other.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me