Julius Caesar – July 2012

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Greg Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 5th July 2012

There’s been a definite improvement since last time. We heard the dialogue more clearly, partly because we were more familiar with the accents they were using, but mainly because the delivery was that bit stronger. Our viewing angle was very different as well, which helped me to pick up on a lot of nuances I’d missed before, and it so happened this was the captioned performance, which also helped a bit.

The set was as before, and all the crowd scenes and lighting changes seemed identical, though I can’t be totally certain. The preamble, with the music and dancing, etc., was just as good as before, and it was quite a shock when the tribunes broke it up with their sticks. Their anger at the people, and their use of blue sashes to indicate their different allegiance, made it clear that Rome was divided, while their scathing condemnation of the way the populace changed its favourites from day to day was reminiscent of today’s celebrity culture. The cobbler was just as cheeky as before, and got a lot of laughs for his small section.

When Caesar arrived, he was gracious and oozed confidence, waving his fly whisk at the cheering throng who were mostly off stage at this point. When a woman came to put a wreath round Mark Antony’s neck, two security guards tried to stop her, but Mark Antony waved them away. The only jarring note came when the soothsayer stepped forward to deliver his warning; then Caesar looked uncertain, but covered it with a show of bravado. He was already snubbing Cassius in a very deliberate way, and it would only get worse.

Brutus was almost off the stage before Cassius could persuade him to stay. Their discussion was much clearer than before; Cassius was hurt that Brutus wasn’t so friendly towards him, while Brutus was preoccupied with some thoughts that he felt it best not to share. The lines “for the eye sees not itself but by reflection, by some other thing” were said by both men, as if reciting some well-known motto or proverb. Gradually they edged towards an understanding, assisted by the cheers from the crowd. I felt this time that Cassius had been hurt by Caesar in some way, not just through slighted pride at someone else being given the high honours which he perhaps wanted for himself, but a more personal affront, a rejection by someone he had considered a friend. He certainly didn’t come across as just a political schemer tonight, although his manipulation of Brutus showed that he was prepared to use all sorts of dishonest tactics to get what he wanted.

When Caesar returned from the games, his comments to Mark Antony about Cassius were obviously said for all to hear, and Cassius was visibly affected by them. Something has clearly gone on between these two men in the past; perhaps Caesar didn’t like the fact that Cassius had saved his life in the river? After Caesar left, Casca’s descriptions of events were wonderfully funny, and I could see in Brutus and Cassius’s reactions that they were bonding even more as they heard the details.

Casca and Cicero’s conversation during the storm was much clearer this time round, and I understood it to be a combination of telling the audience what was going on – lions in the street, flaming hands, etc. – and allowing Cicero to show the rational perspective, pointing out that signs can be interpreted in all sorts of ways. He was carrying an umbrella – very sensible – and left as soon as he got the information he wanted, that Caesar would be going to the Capitol tomorrow.

Cassius then turned up, shirt open to the elements, and revelling in the danger of it. After Cicero’s comment about interpreting signs, Cassius then demonstrated this very point by re-interpreting the wonders that had frightened Casca into portents which were meant to stir men’s spirits to great deeds. Although he doesn’t actually say it, I got the impression that Cassius’s actions are a challenge to nature to do its worst, a form of augury whereby if he escapes being struck by lightning it indicates the plot is meant to go ahead. Casca was quick to offer the hand of friendship when he found out what Cassius intended, and with some more chat about who’s in the plot and the certainty of winning over Brutus to the cause, the conspirators left the stage to the man himself.

This scene was much stronger than the previous time. Lucius was clearly a boy who could sleep for Rome; he nodded off on the back steps while the conspiracy was being planned, which explains his lack of knowledge of the plot later on. He was told to go to bed and then called back immediately to get something else for Brutus; his reaction was very funny. Brutus’s concerns about Caesar seemed plausible enough, but I could see that they had one great weakness; Caesar hadn’t actually done anything wrong at this point, and Brutus was only trying to prevent future problems instead of addressing present wrongs. Even so, I felt that he was still trying to do the honourable thing and wasn’t out for personal revenge or gain.

His sense of honour was well to the fore during the planning session with the others. Cassius looked baffled and hurt by the way that Brutus kept changing the sensible decisions he’d already made, and then influencing the rest to agree with those changes. Honourable, yes; politically savvy, no. But acting from a position of honour, his choices were almost inevitable. Their doom was sealed. With the Ides of March dawning and Caesar about to leave for the Capitol, their plot seemed rushed, even amateurish, and while they’d given some thought to the aftermath, their vision was clouded by Brutus’s honourable fantasies about the people behaving rationally and reasonably once they’d had the assassination properly explained to them.

The confrontation between Portia and Brutus was much better this time, with Portia’s complaints being absolutely clear, and I noticed she even used some of the same rhetorical tricks that Brutus employed. Caius Ligarius, the sick man, recovered very quickly, giving us another laugh, and then the following scene overlapped a little with this one, as Caesar appeared on the platform before Caius Ligarius and Brutus left the stage. I’ve only just realised that Shakespeare’s done another of his tricks here; the argument between Portia and Brutus is followed almost immediately by the argument between Calpurnia and Caesar, and while Calpurnia appears to win, Decius Brutus soon changed Caesar’s mind with his smooth flattery. His assurance to the conspirators earlier, that he could manipulate Caesar at will with compliments, was amusing; now we got to see him in action (although we had only the back view), and he was as good as his word. The clincher, of course, was the prospect of the crown – couldn’t actually see Caesar salivating when this was mentioned, but he was clearly keen to get to the senate and (finally!) accept this honour.

All the conspirators turned up, and I noticed they did a little ritual when they arrived. They each touched the ground with one hand, as if bowing to Caesar or acknowledging him in some way, before rising and being welcomed by him. Cassius came on last, as before, and was left in that position as Caesar ignored him, talking instead to Trebonius. As they left the stage through the central doorway, Artemidorus stood on the platform, reciting the list of names as the men themselves passed under him. He then left quickly, and Portia came on to send Lucius on his errand to the Capitol. Her agitation was clear to us, even if Lucius was completely bemused by lack of orders. Instead of Artemidorus reappearing, the soothsayer came on through the central doorway and stalked forward with a strange, slow rhythm – quite eerie. Portia was spooked by him as well, and he delivered Artemidorus’s lines during his straight journey from the back of the stage, all the way off the front and through the audience. He finished with “Good morrow to you”, as I remember.

He must have run to get back round to the platform for his next meeting with Caesar, and then the senate scene unfolded with great clarity, despite the inevitable blocking through all the conspirators standing around the stage. I could see Trebonius drawing Mark Antony away from Caesar, see Cassius looking nervous about possible discovery, and also see each of the conspirators take their turn to stab Caesar, so I didn’t miss much. Jeffery Kissoon delivered Caesar’s lines strongly throughout the evening, and although there was a lot to admire in his character’s attitudes, he also showed us the pride, the ambition, and the arrogant assumption that he was better than everyone else, not entirely justified by his actions. His intense dislike, even hatred, for Cassius was also easy to spot, and I felt strongly that this Caesar would not have been good for Rome in the long run, though not necessarily worse than the rulers they did get.

I think they asked Lepidus to calm the people instead of Publius in this production. Antony’s political manoeuvring was well done, and Octavius’s servant was overcome with grief when he came on. Brutus’s speech to the crowd worked very well, showing us how he focused the questions to his best advantage, but once Mark Antony took to the platform we could see a master manipulator at work. It was obvious to us, though not to the crowd, that he just happened to have a piece of parchment with Caesar’s seal on it about his person; the way he tore it up later during the discussion with Octavius and Lepidus made that clear. In many ways he spoke the literal truth, but the way he put the pieces together stirred up the crowd’s emotions, and he had to work to get them back to hear the contents of the ‘will’. His promptings to riot, and the denial of those prompting were brilliantly delivered by Ray Fearon, whose Antony was motivated by the death of his friend, rather than any concern for Rome.

Cinna the poet met his fiery end again; someone in the crowd put a tyre over him while they were asking him questions, and after they dragged him off the back of the stage, the red light of flames flickered over the back wall. Nasty. I was reminded of the hysteria around paedophiles some years ago, when paediatricians, amongst others, were being targeted by the ignorant members of the public. The short meeting of Antony, Octavius and Lepidus served to show Antony as the driving force at this point, confident in his power and assuming that, as the senior ‘partner’, he’ll be giving the orders.

The tent scene was another that came across much more strongly this time round. Brutus’s quarrel with Cassius was very emotional, and seemed to be more about Brutus suffering because he’d heard of Portia’s death than because of any specific grievance, even though he listed a number of Cassius’s faults. I noticed that Cassius did little to defend himself, other than comment on their friendship. The poet who interrupted them looked like the soothsayer without most of the white powder – can’t confirm from the cast list. Once they were reconciled, Brutus poured a libation from the bowl of wine before drinking. Their friendship was very apparent, especially as Brutus only shared his reaction to Portia’s death with Cassius, keeping it from the other generals.

The ghost’s appearance was brief, and triggered the falling of the statue, with the paper sections at the back also separating slightly. The slanging match between the teams before the battle was clearer than before, and I found Cassius and Brutus’s farewells quite moving. The battle scenes were all fine, and Lucius was very funny in the nervous and awkward way he held his gun; Brutus had to adjust it once to avoid getting shot. The play ended swiftly after Brutus’s death, and nothing was made of the closing lines but that didn’t matter. We’d had a very good time, and I hope they do well in London.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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