Julius Caesar – August 2009

6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Lucy Bailey

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 11th August 2009

This was a bit disappointing. There were enough interesting moments for me to give it 6/10, but overall the staging had a number of weaknesses which I felt detracted from the performance.

From the program notes, the director had been influenced by, amongst other things, the TV series Rome, and this influence could be seen throughout the production. At the back of the stage there was a series of screens which could be rotated to face either way. They could be folded right back to make a screen, set on an angle, set edge on to the stage, and the angled settings could face either way, so there were a lot of possibilities there. Behind and above these screens was another larger screen, and both of these levels were used to show various images throughout the performance, with the musicians on the level above. At the start, the image at the back was of the statue of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, while prior to the performance two scantily clad, dirty men carried out an exhausted fight, both needing long pauses between farcically poor attacks on each other, eventually resulting in the death of one of them. I assume this was the aforementioned twins having their fight to the death to determine who ruled Rome, which may have set the scene for some folk, but didn’t do anything for me. Scabrous, gritty realism was the order of the day, however, as the manic festivities of the Lupercal took to the stage, helpfully assimilating the dead body in the process.

This was where I had the first problem with the multi-media approach. As Flavius and Murullus remonstrated with the common folk, the background screens were still showing the mass of the festival carrying on regardless, implying that these tribunes were having little effect in stopping the celebrations. That may have been the intention, but if so it completely undercuts the impact of the scene. The noise also continued making it harder to hear what was being said, and with my fondness for hearing the lines this was not a helpful aspect of the production for me. The drunken cobbler (Autolycus from The Winter’s Tale) did get some good laughs, mind you, and in general there was more humour on show than your average JC production.

I enjoyed Greg Hicks’ performance as Julius Caesar. Livelier than many I’ve seen, it reminded me of his comments earlier in the day about Peter Hall’s advice to listen to jazz music if you want to play classical roles. This was definitely the ‘jazz Julius’, which again helped the humour. Following his comments about Caesar’s reputation for being absolutely ruthless about killing or punishing people, even those he liked, I felt that came across in his performance, especially in the senate house, along with Caesar’s arrogance and passion for power. There was also a nice touch in this casting, with Caesar’s warning to Mark Antony to beware of men who have “a lean and hungry look” applying equally as well to Caesar himself.

During the discussion between Brutus and Cassius, which came across reasonably clearly, the image at the back was of the top of the stadium with the backs of people visible above the wall. This did at least allow the cheering to be more obvious, and was probably the best use of these techniques during the evening. Casca’s explanation of Caesar’s distemper was certainly acerbic enough, and got the usual laugh at “it was Greek to me”, but the delivery was strangely jerky for an RSC production and I found this another distraction which took away from my enjoyment. In fact I felt that about half the actors seemed to have been affected by this same problem, with some lines becoming unintelligible or losing their effect because of it. Fortunately, the main parts were understandable enough, although there was a strange propensity for characters to shout their way through the dialogue, acceptable when Brutus and Cassius are squaring up to each other later perhaps, but unnecessary in most of the other instances.

The storm scene was prefaced by the image of a statue of Caesar breaking up into little pieces and being blown away – a bizarre impressionistic image which might have been more effective if only the other pictures used hadn’t seemed intent on giving the production a more realistic look and feel. I lost a lot of the lines here and I was worried that the production might just be beyond recovery, but the following scenes became stronger, and although the interval came later than I would have liked I was much more engaged with the performance by that time.

Brutus (Sam Troughton) was perfectly pitched as a noble but politically naive Roman aristocrat. His reputation with the Roman people and his skill at oratory were both a blessing and a curse; they helped the conspirators ‘get away with it’ temporarily, but then they blocked Cassius from persuading the group to act wisely in killing Mark Antony. During their ‘debate’, I was very aware that Brutus was a sort of celebrity figurehead who takes over the revolution and screws it up big time. His powers of persuasion prevail again during the strategy meeting in the second half, to everyone’s cost. I saw Cassius as being better at influencing other men on an individual basis, working anonymously behind the scenes to control the outcome of events, but he just wasn’t able to go up against someone like Brutus successfully in front of the group. At the same time I realised that, whatever their motivations, each of these men believes he’s doing the right thing. There’s no calculated choice to be a villain, as we get with Richard III. The mentions of Pompey’s defeat, and references to factions also brought out the idea that some of the men had been on Pompey’s side, and now they want either revenge or to regain their political power. Or both.

There was a moment in the run up to the assassination when Caesar takes the scroll from Artemidorus and hangs on to it for quite a while, when it might have been possible to ratchet up the tension a bit more. I was looking at Caesar during this, so I didn’t notice if the conspirators were reacting; if they did, it didn’t come across to me. If we see this production again I’ll try to remember to watch the conspirators more closely.

The senate scene was fine, but I felt the assassination itself was overdone and too stagey. Again, this was in line with the desire to rub the audience’s noses in the grime and muck of ancient Rome, but it lost impact and momentum for me. (The soothsayer’s first appearance was similarly over the top.) The remainder of that scene was fine, although I wasn’t sure if Mark Antony would be another victim of the ‘heightened’ staging. I needn’t have worried; his speech to the Romans, following Brutus’s remarkably effective oration, was all that could have been wished, with Antony having to keep his intentions well hidden at first from the openly hostile crowd.

Here was another place where the multi-media did its best to ruin a perfectly good scene. First off, there were lots of unruly crowd images projected onto the lower screens, with the cast adding an extra layer to the effect. So far, so good. However, these images never responded fully to the main action, so again Brutus and Antony were competing with a constant background rumble, undercutting the effect of their speeches. These men are meant to hold the crowd in the palm of their hand (hands?) one after another; ideally, there should be little or no noise other than what they inspire. Adding to the noise element, it seemed the city had already been set alight and was blazing fiercely, something Mark Antony was supposed to incite, but the citizens were way ahead of him. So apart from the crowd’s inattention to the speeches, the way their responses seemed muffled when they did produce them, and their total unconcern that they were about to be trapped by a massive conflagration which they presumably started, it went well. But not for Cinna the poet, poor chap, bumped off just before the interval.

The second half started with the triumvirate agreeing the list of traitors to be executed – again, too much unnecessary shouting. Antony appears to be in a superior position with this much younger Octavius, but it doesn’t last. The background image is of a row of burning torches or beacons set on a hill(?). The next scene concerns the relationship between Brutus and Cassius, their argument and reconciliation. The staging didn’t work so well for me, although I felt the performances were very good. During the second half, when soldiers arrived on the scene, they came through the angled screens (different direction indicated different army) with choreographed movements, and backed up with more film of lots of men doing the same sort of movement. Frankly, along with the music, I thought they were about to burst into a song and dance routine. I like humour, but this kind of silliness doesn’t help matters. During the confrontation between the two leaders, I kept catching glimpses of the guards on the other side of the translucent screens moving around, yet another distraction – is this production going for a record?

With the decision to fight at Philippi, and Brutus’s vision of Caesar’s ghost, strangely helped on by a woman in black, there’s nothing left but the fighting and multiple suicides. There was an additional ghost in this sequence. When Brutus is listening to his servant’s music, sitting facing him and looking diagonally to our right, his wife’s ghost came on behind him, and after waving her arms around a bit, turned and left, as if she’d been trying to get his attention and failed. I have no idea what that was meant to add to the piece.

Brutus’s ‘suicide’ – running onto a sword held by his servant – was very nicely done. Caesar’s ghost entered carrying a sword, and passed between the two living men just at the moment when Brutus runs forward, so it looked like Caesar killing Brutus. This was a lovely and unusual piece of staging – well done to whoever thought that up. The rest of it all went off OK, though again the fighting seemed a bit overdone, and the play ended with Brutus’s body being carried off by Octavius’s soldiers while the remaining soldiers gradually dropped down onto the stage, presumably dead. I took this to be a reference to the many more deaths to come, particularly when Octavius and Antony have their dust-up, but without any great conviction on my part, nor any great pleasure in seeing it.

One aspect of the production we both liked was the costumes. Instead of everyone struggling with togas, the costumes suggested Roman-ness without actually being authentic, so the actors could move around freely. The scene where Caesar was persuaded to go to the senate on the ides of March was funnier than usual, and that odd scene where Portia tells her servant to run to the Capitol without giving him instructions was done well enough, but I still have no idea what it’s for. Apart from the gloomy and sometimes inexplicable lighting changes, that’s about it for this performance. Not one I’d recommend without major changes – is it possible to lose the projectors on the way to Newcastle?

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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