by William Shakespeare
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole
Shakespeare’s Globe, London
Saturday 5th July 2014, 2 p.m.
George Irving as Julius Caesar
Tom McKay as Brutus
Anthony Howell as Cassius
Luke Thompson as Mark Antony
Christopher Logan as Casco
Joe Jameson as Octavius Caesar
The stage with thrust triangle. The set is being assembled as you come in
Toga, or not toga, that is the question? It’s always the first question about the Roman plays, and after the elaborately costumed Titus Andronicus at The Globe, we knew they do the full Roman (and Hun) well. They’re getting plenty of practice this summer, with Titus Andronicus. Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra all running.
Julius Caesar is costumed as Shakespearean era with Roman touches. See my comments on the RSC’s African production a couple of years ago … loved the production, but I don’t think I’ll ever warm to the play entirely. Posthumous note to Shakespeare: stop killing off title characters long before the end of histories. The perennial issue with Julius Caesar are that all the interesting stuff is over at the end of Mark Antony’s speech. This is normally the interval (as at the Globe) though the RSC made everyone stay without a pause.
The production takes many cues from Titus Andronicus. There are three large wooden platforms pushed in among the groundlings. Various plebs (if we’re allowed to use that word post-Plebgate) stand on them. There are a large number of actors working from the floor as citizens of Rome. Caesar’s triumphal entry is through the audience. Much work comes in through the audience. That is all lively, and exciting and well done. Before it starts there are actors reciting Caesar’s triumphs by the entrances, then musicians and actors roistering around in the ground area.
When you come in, the set is being built by costumed actors and that continues through the first few minutes. The foreman is clutching and referring to the instructions. One of the ‘marble’ pillars gets bumped by a Roman in scene one, and wobbles and has to be caught … We are reminded that this is fictive: an Elizabethan company doing Julius Caesar in 1599. It is said to have been the first play performed at The Globe, an enormous occasion for the company, and that is why Shakespeare avoided comedy roles in the play. He showed off his writing of rhetoric in what was believed to be a Roman style. With his investment in the new theatre, he was going for serious cred. The superb programme notes explain this. In other words, it’s the pop star doing the serious but slightly pretentious album.
The murder of Caesar … Casca puts the knife in
The visual effects were good. Caesar’s entrance, Caesar’s death, Caesar in his coffin. Caesar enters through the audience, distributing largesse. It would be hard to get an actor who looked more magnificently like Caesar than George Irving. He speaks noticeably far quieter than the rest of the cast though, and he had a cough which may have been to indicate an ailing Caesar, or may have been the reason he was quieter. The body language was excellent, every inch a Roman ruler. Maybe the cough came from lying dead for a very long time indeed bathed in stage blood which formed in puddles around him. He was perfectly still through that long dead bit, then had to be brought on in a coffin and play motionless and dead again. The Globe has gallons of stage blood available for every performance and uses it. Pools and puddles of it.
Cassius and Brutus. Which is which?
On the costume, I would never have put Cassius and Brutus in near identical dark green. They have similar beards and hair. They are distinguishable by boots for Brutus, and no boots for Cassius. Generally, the shoes were very good and the calves were shapely (said my companion). My companion felt the boots could have been sexier. It is classicaly NOT a woman’s play, so amidst all the political wrangling costume took attention. The already meagre women’s roles of Calpurnia and Portia’s seemed cut even shorter in this one. As mentioned in the RSC review, teachers have often remarked how teenage girls find nothing to relate to in the play. The boots could have at least retained shoe interest. The plotters scene, where each has a bit of toga over the Elizabethan gear, has insufficient clothes differentiation for me, and that long scene felt particularly flat and dull. No spark. In the RSC’s African production this scene was especially good.
Christopher Logan was truly outstanding as Casca, especially in his first long speech, turning his patrician nose up at the “sweaty nightcaps” of the plebs. Irritatingly, Casca doesn’t get many lines after that. It’s a shame he didn’t have more opportunities in the rest of the play. He never fails to delight on stage, and came to the fore in the final dance. He is one of our favourite actors since his Bottom in the Headlong “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
I’m not sure about Mark Antony first appearing as a slightly pissed Jack the Lad. It gave him problems establishing his stature later. His rhetorical funeral oration is the best thing in the play, and he succeeded in establishing skilled manipulative politician superbly, but I’m not sure it exuded the full weight of hero.
The “first part” / ‘second part’ problem in the play was as big as ever because it’s intrinsic. There’s so much good material in the first part, so much politics and so many boring battles in part two. I really liked the stylized way battles were done by forming choreographed shield walls rather than bashing clunky metal around. Choreography was first rate. The battle scenes were the best I’ve seen because there was no actual fighting.
I think if I ever see the play again, I’ll slope off after Mark Antony’s oration and miss those interminable Roman suicides “falling on your sword” “rushing on a sword someone’s holding” etc. A nice touch was having Grasco who dispatches Brutus, hooded, then revealed to be the same actor as Caesar.
Contemporary accounts mention the dance ending back in 1599, obligatory at The Globe and RSC. It immediately brings in the magic of the Globe, even in a play I will never learn to love.
Globe programme notes define the art.