Julius Caesar – July 2014

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Dominic Dromgoole

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Tuesday 8th July 2014

This was a much better experience than our previous visit (Titus Andronicus). We could hear the dialogue as well as seeing more of the action, and although there were a few casualties who needed to be helped out of the theatre, we weren’t distracted so much by them this time around. Mind you, they were still building the set when we arrived at our seats; two workmen were busy setting up the fake façade of a building underneath the balcony, which at least gave the audience something to watch while we waited for the play to begin.

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Julius Caesar – January 2013

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 17th January 2013

We only just made this performance with a few minutes to spare. The fire at Victoria station this morning meant our planned train was cancelled, but the next one ran pretty much to schedule and with some faster than usual walking (for us) we made it to the Donmar with just enough time for me to make a quick trip to the ladies – with two hours and no interval, I wanted to be prepared.

Mind you, I wasn’t happy when I entered the auditorium and saw the plastic bucket seats. Friends had warned us about this but I’d forgotten, and after all the stresses of the morning I wasn’t in a good humour when I sat beside Steve and ran through my pre-flight checklist: glasses, clean; phone, OFF (you know who you are); cough sweet, in (ditto); tissues, handy.

My feeling of depression deepened as I took in the ‘realistic’ prison setting: drab walls, locked doors with viewing windows, a scruffy sofa and some chairs in the right hand corner, some institutional paraphernalia in the other and along the back wall, a drum, an electric guitar, etc. There were two levels of balcony with metal steps on the right hand side. The spotlights were like searchlights, and there was strip lighting above the central area, mostly switched off once the play started. There was a trolley of some sort which was used from time to time, but the stage was usually bare of furniture.

The costumes were in keeping with this design concept. The women prisoners wore grey tracksuits with grey hoodies, and used woollen masks to cover their faces when needed. They also wore great coats, army fatigues or dresses as the occasion required, and there was even a spot of nudity, though not in a salacious way. The red rubber gloves will get a mention later on.

I knew that a women’s prison was the setting beforehand, but the full awfulness of the situation only dawned as I came into the acting space. There was some suitably unpleasant stuff at the beginning of the performance as well, with the prisoners being marched on stage and standing in line followed by a short display of anarchy as they ran around, shouted and screamed, hurled some stuff about and generally behaved badly. What pulled them together was the announcement from the first balcony, by Antony as it turned out, that ‘she’ was coming. The dialogue for this bit was mainly invented, but they did include the soothsayer’s first warning to Caesar, and they staged it pretty well. Carrie Rock played the soothsayer as a girl-woman who often sat by herself cradling a baby doll. The others regarded her as crazy or off her head with drugs, so when she approached Antony on the balcony she was allowed through. She was holding a magazine and pointed to it when she warned of the Ides of March; Antony took the magazine and made it clear this was an astrological prediction with some lines about Libra being very successful but having to watch out you don’t upset others.

With Caesar’s arrival (Frances Barber), things took a more orderly and more menacing turn. She spoke to the crowd and had them in the palm of her hand, and then they started a little exercise routine which had me laughing. Designed to show Caesar’s power over her followers, it made me think that Frances Barber was playing a megalomaniac criminal aerobics instructor. She had the group moving to one side, then the other, going down then up, and the whole thing was hilarious. Some face masks had been thrown down before this, and when the group turned round there was the strange effect of seeing so many Caesars facing us. I assume this was also meant to be chilling or disturbing in some way, but it reminded me of Frances Barber’s recent role in Doctor Who, and I suspected they were trading on that to impress the younger audience members. Whatever the reason, it didn’t engage me, and I was already thinking I’d give the performance fifteen minutes before walking out, something I don’t even consider normally.

Fortunately, once Caesar went off with her followers to an upstairs corner, we were left with Cassius (Jenny Jules) and Brutus (Harriet Walter), and there was no way anything short of a nuclear explosion was going to get me out of my seat once those two got started. Their delivery of the lines was crystal clear and their portrayal of these two characters was the best I’ve ever seen. Admittedly there was a lot missing in this heavily cut production, but the set pieces between these two were pretty much intact and gave us a very detailed picture of their difficult relationship. When they were talking, the setting disappeared into the background (the lights were lowered at this point as well) and the play began to come alive. Cassius’s passion came across strongly, and I could believe for once that there was an existing close friendship between these two people. The accounts of Caesar’s weakness, especially the swim across the river, were so vivid that Cassius’s resentment of Caesar’s success became very clear and understandable.

During this scene there were the necessary cheers from the upper corner, and when Caesar came back down with her followers they made a lot more of this short section than usual. They had placed a table and two chairs in the middle of the stage some time before Cassius and Brutus started their dialogue, and now Caesar put what looked like a pizza box down on the table, threw back the lid and invited everyone to grab a slice. Later, I realised it must have been a box of doughnuts, or perhaps it was a mixture, who knows? Cassius held aloof over on the right of the stage, but Brutus dived in as fast as the others and ate her food by one of the pillars under the balcony, just on Caesar’s left. Caesar’s comment about ‘fat, sleek-headed men’ was accompanied by her stroking Brutus’s head very affectionately, and instead of the rest of the speech being done as a side conversation, or as an open insult by ignoring Cassius’s presence, here Cassius was brought over to sit on one of the chairs and had half a doughnut stuffed in her mouth by Caesar. I didn’t have the presence of mind to check out Brutus’s response to this, as the tension had built up and I was focused on Cassius and Caesar. The derogatory description of Cassius was then given to all and sundry, including Brutus, and this demonstration of total power was rounded off by Caesar biting off the other bit of doughnut that was sticking out of Cassius’s mouth and then giving her a kiss. Cassius was mostly frozen during this scene, but her anger was evident and I noticed that she clenched her fists during the kiss.

Once Caesar had established her authority, she left with Antony and the gang and the other two sat down with Casca to find out what the cheering had been about. Ishia Bennison was excellent as Casca, with a rueful, world-weary cynicism that brought out the humour of her speech perfectly. With the foundations of the plot laid, they skipped the storm scenes altogether and immediately returned to Brutus’s house with Brutus calling for the sleepy Lucius. Again Harriet Walter delivered Brutus’s lines superbly well, and I was particularly struck by the line “Th’abuse of greatness is when it disjoins Remorse from power.” How true.

The letter was thrown down from the balcony instead of brought in by Lucius, and when the conspirators arrived they all wore woollen masks. These were gradually removed as the scene progressed, and when the oath was suggested by Cassius, all the others came and knelt in a circle by Brutus, holding out their hands to swear whatever was required. Brutus spoiled the party, as usual, but her words were inspiring, reminding them all of their common bond and their noble nature. Mind you, Cassius was really starting to get hacked off when Brutus also shoved her oar in about killing Mark Antony. I got the impression that Cassius respected Brutus too much to cause a fuss, and went along with her interpretation of the situation with fewer misgivings than Cassius often shows.

Once the other conspirators had left, Brutus was confronted by Portia, played by Clare Dunne (doubled with Octavius). This is normally the part where I start to lose interest, but again the relationship between these characters fairly crackled with energy, and I enjoyed this scene more than I ever have before. I did find Clare’s Irish brogue a little strong at times, but the fact that she was several months pregnant, with a significant bump, added to both Brutus’s concerns for her welfare and Portia’s own argument that Brutus is neglecting her own health. Her thigh wound was made just before the line “I have made strong proof of my constancy”, and I didn’t spot any fake blood this time, though as Brutus covered her wound very quickly I may have missed it.

The Caius Ligarius part was axed, so the next scene was Caesar’s decision to go to the senate/not to go to the senate/go to the senate. At first Caesar was helped into her black coat by a couple of servants, then she took it off when Calpurnia’s persuasions succeeded, and put it back on again once Casca (instead of Decius Brutus) had her say. Caesar responded very angrily when Casca asked for a reason to give the senate, and everyone else looked cowed. After walking across the stage, Caesar softened enough to give her reasons, for Casca’s ear only, and Casca had to work fast to think of an alternative interpretation of Calpurnia’s dream. This began to change Caesar’s mind, but the absolute clincher was the mention of a crown – how Caesar’s eyes lit up at that word! She was scathing towards Calpurnia after that, and soon had her coat back on for the trip to the senate.

The soothsayer’s part was trimmed to “Caesar, beware ……. It is bent against Caesar”. She said these lines in a disjointed way, wandering around the stage and eventually leaving it, followed by the short scene between Portia and Lucius in which the soothsayer didn’t appear at all. It was very clear that Portia, now knowing about the plot, was extremely worried about Brutus’s safety, and equally as worried about letting slip any information which would spoil the assassination.

As Caesar was arriving at the Senate House, Mark Antony approached a woman in the front row, almost directly in front of us, and asked her to move to another chair which, along with a few others, had been placed just in front of the area covered by the balcony. This left the central seat for Caesar to sit on, and the audience became “his Senate”. We had a very good view of the pleas by Metellus and the others for the repeal of Publius Cimber, and both the best and worst of views for the actual assassination itself. I spotted Casca coming along our row shortly before the deed, and she was right behind Caesar when she delivered the line “Speak hands for me” and stabbed Caesar in the back (or neck; as I said before, in some ways we had the worst of views). The other conspirators took their turns, and when Brutus stepped up to finish Caesar off, looking deeply unhappy that such an act was necessary, we could see her face as she almost hugged Caesar while stabbing her. Caesar came out of the chair and clung to Brutus for a few moments, trying to get out her last line; eventually she collapsed, centre stage, and like a true drama queen wrung every last gasp out of the death.

It was at this point that someone drew forward a basket with red gloves in it. As they hadn’t used fake blood for this scene either, I had wondered how they were going to dip their hands, but as they discussed their actions and their next steps, they put the gloves on their hands to represent the blood, which I found very effective. I also thought it was a typical woman’s approach – don’t use fake blood, we’ll only have to clean it up afterwards.

Mark Antony arrived immediately, without a herald, and shook hands with the conspirators. Again Brutus overruled Cassius about the funeral arrangements, and this time Cassius was less happy to acquiesce. After the conspirators left, Antony drew her right hand out of her pocket and it now wore a red glove; this was the hand which had grasped the conspirators’ gloves. The servant from Octavius was soon moved to tears at the sight of Caesar’s corpse, and Antony was very angry when she said “Get thee apart and weep”, driving the poor servant away from the body; bit possessive, I thought.

For the crowd scene, the lines about some of the people going off to hear what Cassius has to say were dropped, and the ‘plebs’ raced around the stage in a state of panic, with one or another coming to rest, often at a significant moment in Brutus’s speech. Brutus herself was on the trolley, which had been wheeled into the middle of the stage, and with all the helter-skelter activity it was hard to hear her initial lines. This was a decent representation of the very panic which she and the rest of the conspirators had been keen to avoid, but it did detract from important aspects of Brutus’s rhetoric. Given Harriet Walter’s excellent delivery, this seemed too much like dumbing down, emphasising the ‘important’ bits with movement in case the dummies in the audience weren’t up to the language, and naturally it got up my nose. What I did like was the final part of this section, where the crowd congregated around Brutus while they expressed their approval of her actions; as they touched her and moved her around I noticed that they removed her red gloves, a very visual indication that they absolved Brutus of all blame for the murder of Caesar. At the very end, they clustered tightly round Brutus, and when they parted the body of Caesar was lying on the ground, still in the black coat (although it was another actress playing the corpse). The action then moved seamlessly into Antony’s oration, and that’s when things turned ugly.

Antony stood on the ground level to speak to the crowd, and the ‘mantle’ was another version of the black coat, which appeared to have some rips and tears where the shivs had entered. Cush Jumbo delivered Antony’s speech pretty well, and it wasn’t long before there was a mini-riot, with people rushing off the stage to do lots of damage. Antony spoke briefly with Octavius’s servant, and then Cinna the poet arrived for her date with destiny.

The first Cinna was taken away by the guards for some reason – Steve thinks it was to get her medication. Another Cinna had to be pressganged into the role, and since she didn’t know the lines she was given a copy of the text to read from. The rioters were pretty rough with her; she was punched and kicked and slammed against one of the metal pillars. This led to a nosebleed which threatened to stop the whole performance. Two (female) guards arrived, I think the lights came on, and it was only the intervention of Caesar herself, who was apparently also the director of the play, that got things back on track. Cinna was given a hanky to deal with the blood, and the others got on with the play. (This was presumably one reason for not using fake blood during the assassination and other scenes; it would be confusing to have fake blood playing both ‘fake’ blood and ‘real’ blood.)

Antony, Lepidus and Octavius delivered their short scene well. A prisoner was kneeling at the front of the stage, head covered in a hood, while the three leaders stood along the back. After Lepidus left, Antony and Octavius took turns shooting the prisoner, who fell down and then obligingly lifted herself back up to a kneeling position for the next execution. At the very end, Octavius took pity on the prisoner and released her, only to shoot her as she headed off stage, an early indication of Octavius’s ruthlessness.

Brutus’s tent was created by dropping a divided sheet down for the tent opening and having a sofa on one side and a table with stools on the other. The meeting of Cassius and Brutus took place outside this tent, but once they sent off their officers, the lighting changed and we were immediately inside. The scene began with Cassius’s arrival, and was another strong episode in this performance. The dialogue was still crystal clear, and the strength of the relationship between the two characters was very evident. The ‘dagger’ drawn by Cassius was actually a plastic gun, and the entrance of the poet was dropped.

After the passion of the early heated exchange, there was a moment, perhaps inspired by the Poet’s contribution, when Harriet Walter snapped at some sound and swore at the actors who were behind the curtain. I forget what she said, but it was clear her prison character was very angry. It did release some of the tension, and at the time I wasn’t happy about that, but they soon had the scene up and running again with the revelation of Portia’s death and the rest of the scene flowed through very well, with Brutus again overriding Cassius’s better military strategy to hand a clear tactical advantage to the enemy.

The ghost scene was kept simple, with Lucius having a brass instrument and still managing to fall asleep, and Caesar’s ghost appearing for the brief exchange with Brutus. There were no others in the tent, so we were soon on to Octavius and Antony discussing their battle plans up on the balcony. Octavius began to show her tougher side, insisting on taking the right flank, and Antony seemed to be more petulant than a good general should. The confrontation between the two sides’ generals took place on the ground level, and instead of swords they drew their plastic guns again, pointing them at different people depending on the state of the slanging match.

The battle scenes were cut a bit: I remember Brutus and Cassius taking leave of each other, just in case, and then Cassius went through her despair and death, followed by Brutus’s recognition of defeat and her death. Both bodies were still on the floor as Antony and Octavius arrived. With a camera giving us the newsreel footage on the screens, we saw Lucius accepted by Octavius, and then Antony began the closing speeches with “this was the noblest Roman of them all”. She spoke these lines to the camera while the spare cast members picked up Brutus’s body and held it upright behind Antony so it was in shot. Octavius interrupted Antony and spoke over her, taking her lines before she was meant to, and walking in front of Antony to take centre stage. The ‘play’ ended with Octavius’s final lines, and a strong sense that Antony wouldn’t be in charge for long (but that’s another play).

Shortly before the action finished, there had been a reminder from the guards that lock up was only ten minutes away. The prisoners just had time to complete their performance before the guards came back again to take the prisoners back to their cells. It was at this point that we realised that Francis Barber had been a guard all along, which explained her authority and why the play continued after the bloody nose incident. The performance ended with the prisoners being trooped off stage and the lights going out, after which they returned and we gave them rousing applause.

I’m not sure where it happened, but in the later stages the soothsayer wandered naked around the stage carrying her doll, while other actors came on and stood randomly about the place. The soothsayer may have spoken some lines – I don’t remember – and I have absolutely no idea what it was about.

I felt the choice to set the play in a women’s prison was OK, but they didn’t do enough to fully justify it for me. There was the suggestion of lesbian relationships with the ‘wife’ characters, but that wasn’t emphasised nor did it enlighten; on the whole this was a pretty straight reading of the play, albeit a curtailed version. I didn’t have any sense of the way this play impacted on the prisoners’ lives, nor how their experiences influenced their performances or the staging choices, other than the obvious areas of props and furniture. We, the audience, were clearly part of the context, members of the public who had come to see what these prisoners could achieve thanks to the programs paid for by our tax contributions. There were some snarling references to that during the crowd scenes, but nothing worth noting up specifically. Steve did remark on the importance of the play to Harriet Walter’s prison character – her short temper during the tent scene for example, and he saw that she was in tears at the end – but most of the prisoners didn’t seem to care one way or the other. I accept that this setting gave a ready-made explanation for an all-women cast, but again I feel that this sells everyone short: the writer, whose work transcends the ‘realistic’ approach and often works much better when the setting is kept indistinct, the audience, who (mostly) have good imaginations and can go with well-delivered Shakespearean dialogue to just about anywhere, and the actors themselves, who in this case delivered such brilliant readings of their characters that I would happily see this again if I could have a comfy seat. (Actually, I’d probably be willing to forego the comfy seat.)

I left feeling very happy that we’d made it in time to see this production, and also that we’ll be lucky to see such tremendous central performances again. I noticed that Harriet Walter’s slight lisp was more pronounced today, but it didn’t interfere with her delivery, which was impeccable.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

I, Cinna – July 2012

2/10

By Tim Crouch (drawing heavily on Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)

Directed by Tim Crouch

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Friday 6th July 2012

I found this dreadfully boring. Designed as a way of suggesting ideas, mainly to schoolchildren, this was as dull an experience as I’ve had in Stratford. Cinna, the poet, spent about an hour talking us through the play Julius Caesar, attempting to give us some thought-provoking questions along the way. After this there was a post-show discussion so that the audience could air their thoughts and views (I assume, as we didn’t stay for that part). There were one or two good bits – commenting on Caesar (or Antony?) as someone with gold taps in their bathroom was a nice way of relating the story to the present day, as were the other mentions of modern life, such as riot police. I did the writing as requested but I didn’t get much out of it, although as we left the auditorium the youngsters were being warmed up for what may have been a good post-show discussion for them.

The set consisted of a tatty green door at the back of the thrust, which had a number of locks and two strips of wall with manky wallpaper, one on either side. There were bits of paper pinned to each wall, and a large screen above the door which showed the video clips. To the left of this was a table with a waste paper basket under it which was overflowing with paper – the floor was covered with screwed up bundles. An old style TV was front left, facing diagonally across the stage to a chair that sat back right, accompanied by a standard lamp. The control table for the video clips was on the back left walkway, and the woman sitting there also delivered a newspaper through the letterbox about halfway through the performance.

After the assassination, Cinna gave us three minutes to write a poem (does he have so little respect for his craft?) and rearranged the furniture to show the post-assassination world. The chairs and table were thrown over, the door was turned round so we could see the backstage view, and he daubed blood on himself to indicate his own murder. I forget how the performance ended, but I did applaud quite loudly, as Jude Owusu had managed a good performance in the circumstances. We’d been moved from the Swan into the Courtyard theatre, from an intimate venue to a big cavern, and I felt that didn’t help what was ostensibly an interactive piece, especially as our numbers reflected the Swan’s capacity rather than the Courtyard’s. There was relatively little audience response during the play, and that may have made a huge difference; I really can’t tell.

I found myself writing some of these notes on the blank pages in the program, as I just wasn’t feeling involved in the performance at all. One response I wrote on the page, after Cinna made the challenging assertion that ‘we are not free’ was ‘free to ignore what’s on stage and write these thoughts down’, so I did manage to get some inspiration from it after all. I felt the video was underused, and the images didn’t seem to relate to what was being talked about for the most part. They did have film of the assassination, which was a bit bizarre, but otherwise it just seemed to be a jumble. I’ll try to avoid this type of performance in future.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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

Julius Caesar – May 2012

6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: RST

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

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

Julius Caesar – March 2009

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: SATTF

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