By William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Doran
Date: Thursday 31st May 2012
This was only the fourth preview, and I gather there have been quite a lot of changes to each performance so far, so this production will undoubtedly settle and improve in the next few weeks. The central idea, of setting the play in an African context, worked very well, but the African accents did obscure a lot of the dialogue. Lots of extras made for a really effective crowd, highlighting the way the mob was being manipulated, but it also raised the energy levels so much when the stage was full that the quieter scenes occasionally suffered by comparison. That may well change with practice, of course, and overall this has the potential to be a very good production.
The stage had been converted into a monumental, slightly crumbling football stadium, with lots of steps and terraces at the back, an impressive central entranceway with platform above, and behind the stands we could see the back of a massive statue, one hand raised in salute. I didn’t realise immediately that it was a statue of Caesar; that became clear later on. The stage floor also had a raised central section, which came up even higher for Mark Antony’s speech, and the tent scene was played in this area with the help of an awning stretched forward from the entranceway. A music combo was perched on the upper right section of terracing at the start, and they returned there from time to time, although music was available in all areas throughout the evening.
Across the back of the stage, behind the terraces, were lots of bits of something – looked like paper with writing on it. The image I got was of the proscription/missing person lists, which were as abundant in the Rome of this period as in many a totalitarian regime today. Don’t know if this was the intent, but it worked well for me. The costumes were modern but included a lot of ceremonial robes which could be from a wide range of periods. One item of African formal wear was a strip of cloth which draped over the body, just like a toga – how convenient. The soothsayer was just about wearing a tattered skirt, and his body was caked in white powder which also plastered his hair down. During the battles, the government forces led by Antony and Octavius wore natty military kit, while the conspirators’ guerrilla rebels had a more bring-your-own-kit look.
Before the start the stage was alive with celebration. The band played, the extras were chatting, dancing, laughing, and looking forward to welcoming Julius Caesar back from his victory over Pompey. This was much better than the naff videos used in the previous production in the main house, and an enormous improvement on the few scuttling individuals who usually stand in for the mass of the Roman populace. The soothsayer turned up in the middle of all this and the whole crowd went silent, but as he started to dance, everyone else joined in. Eventually the killjoy tribunes turned up and told the plebs off. They held long, curved sticks, and whacked them on the ground in a very scary way – no wonder the ordinary folk kept their eyes down. Mind you, the cobbler was nice and cheeky, but to no avail; the common folk were driven away and Flavius and Marullus, clearly Pompey supporters, set off to clean up the city.
Caesar and his entourage entered next, with Brutus and Portia clearly part of this group. After asking Mark Antony to touch Calpurnia during the race – a touch embarrassing for her, I thought, to have her lack of children commented on so publicly – the soothsayer called out Caesar’s name. The soothsayer was huddled at the back of the platform above the entrance, and as Caesar demanded to know who spoke, he stood up, dropped the blanket he’d been wrapped in, and came to the front of the platform to deliver his warning. Despite Caesar ordering that the man be brought before him, he wasn’t, and when the rest left for the race, Brutus and Cassius stayed behind for the first ‘private’ scene of the play.
This came across OK, with roars from the off stage crowd punctuating their discussion, but it will hopefully be clearer with practice. Caesar’s comments about the lean Cassius (not too unbelievable with this casting) were said loud enough to make me wonder if Cassius was meant to hear them; this Caesar was definitely into obvious social snubs. Casca (Joseph Mydell) was wonderfully bitchy in his recounting of Caesar’s dismissal of the kingship, and got probably the biggest laugh I’ve heard yet for “it was Greek to me”.
The storm scene was a bit underpowered, though the sense of the supernatural, and of the characters’ belief in omens and mystical happenings, was much clearer than usual. The following scene, in Brutus’s house, set up the character of Lucius, his young servant. From the director’s talk beforehand, we had learned that this character had been expanded to include Brutus’s companion at the end, as they both shared the trait of falling asleep at every opportunity. Brutus’s contemplation explained his reasoning pretty well, and then the rest of the gang arrived. Already we could see how Brutus was taking charge and countermanding Cassius’s decisions; he was held in such high regard by everyone that he could get away with it.
The arguments for and against Caesar going to the senate were fine, and when the conspirators arrived to accompany Caesar there, Cassius also arrived, last of all, but was noticeably not welcomed by Caesar. (He’s not in the text, so it’s an insertion, but a telling one.) The scenes with Artemidorus and Portia didn’t really register with me – I’m not sure what they’re meant to convey, other than to tell us that Artemidorus is about to expose the conspiracy – but the soothsayer was again a strong presence, reminding Caesar that the Ides of March aren’t over yet. The 3D effect of the thrust stage worked well for the assassination scene, with the conspirators milling about and manoeuvring themselves into position to stab Caesar in turn. There was a greater sense of the threat of discovery, even though the only people on stage were the assassins and their victim. Again, Brutus overrides Cassius regarding Mark Antony, and their doom is set.
The crowd was an excellent part of the forum scene, with lots of chanting and heckling to accompany the speeches. The nature of the oratory used by Brutus and Antony was clearer in this setting; Brutus appealed to the nobler sentiments in the crowd, while Antony knew how to stir their emotions and engage with their baser instincts. Ironically, for all that Antony makes deliberate references to Brutus as ‘an honourable man’ to create the impression that he isn’t, it is, in fact, a true statement. Just shows you what a “scurvy politician” can do with the truth. At some point during the riots, Caesar’s statue at the back was pulled down. [5/7/12 Not so: the statue was pulled down when Caesar’s ghost appeared to Brutus in his tent.]
They were running this play through without an interval, so we were straight into the unfortunate demise of Cinna the poet, followed closely by the first meeting of the triumvirate. Octavius was young, and clearly ambitious, a similar foil to Antony as Brutus was to Cassius, overriding his will and ultimately destined to bring about his downfall. The awning was brought forward for the tent scene, and the argument between Brutus and Cassius was acted strongly, although I wasn’t so clear about their reconciliation. The military planning was clearer than usual, with the layout of the potential battle area being demonstrated on the front part of the thrust. Poor Cassius, overruled again. Caesar’s ghost gave the usual warnings, and then we were into the battle scenes. Nothing much to note till the end, other than the use of Lucius to do Strato’s office and hold the sword for Brutus to run on.
The power in this play came out more strongly with this setting and casting, and I would expect it to come on once they’ve had some more performances and the production settles down. We’re due to see it again, and although I would still prefer an interval – after the killing perhaps? – at least they’ve kept it brisk enough that I can manage the non-stop version. Only one other thing to record; although we both like Ray Fearon as an actor, his tendency to spray while speaking was quite a distraction most of the time. He had a cloud of mist around him during some of his speeches which was rather unpleasant, and I hope he can get that under control.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me