by William Shakespeare
Directed by Angus Jackson`
Designed by Robert Innes Hopkins
Music by Mira Calix
Royal Shakespeare Company
Friday 17th March 2017, 19.30
Joseph Adelakun – cobbler / Artemidorus / Dardanus
Ben Allen – Cinna the Conspirator / Titanius
Kristin Atherton – Calphurnia
David Burnett – Marullus, a tribune / Trebonius / Pindarus
James Corrigan – Mark Anthony
Paul Dodds – Metellus Cimber / Clitus
Patrick Drury – Cinna The Poet / Publius
Waleed Elgadi – Soothsayer / Claudius
Martin Hutson – Cassius
Tom Lorcan – Publius
Luke MacGregor – Carpenter / Voluminous / Popilus Lena / Strato
Tom McCall – Casca / Lucilius
Hannah Morish – Portia
Anthony Ofoegbu – Cicero / Ligurius
Dharmesh Patel – Decius Brutus / Messala
Lucy Phelps – Waiting Woman
Jon Tarcy – Octavius
Alex Waldmann – Brutus
Marcello Walton – Lepidus / Flavius
Andrew Woodall – Julius Caesar
sixteen “Citizens of Rome”
Andrew Stone Fewings- trumpet
Angela Whelan – trumpet
Mark Smith – horn
Kevin Pitt – trombone, euphonium
Ian Foster – tuba, euphonium
Gareth Ellis – keyboard
Brutus, Calpurnia, Caesar. Mark Antony on the right.
When the RSC 2017 Season was announced, my heart dropped a little. All the Roman plays … Julius Caesar, Antony & Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus. To me, it’s poor programming, though hardly a first … The Globe did the first three of them in 2014. If I were planning a season, I’d start off thinking … a history, a tragedy, a comedy, a problem play … yes, that’s the four for the year. We all have preferences. I was shocked when an ex-actor friend admitted they disliked Shakespeare’s comedies. For me, three of the Roman plays come near the bottom of the list along with Henry VI Parts 1-3. We even contemplated “just not bothering” this season. But I do like Antony & Cleopatra, and I was interested in the Plautus mix, and Salome is the only Oscar Wilde play I’ve never seen. Incidentally, my first thought is they could have slipped Comedy of Errors into a Roman Season, as it is based on Plautus’ The Menaechmi Twins. After Up Pompeii and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum the play would look well in Roman garb. Missed opportunity to leaven all that political stuff. Of the four Roman plays, Julius Caesar is my least-liked. It’s steaming along well until after Mark Anthony’s speech, then usually dissolves into the aimless running around of history plays battles.
My 1962 Folio edition begins:
What is it that has made Julius Caesar one of the most popular plays that Shakespeare ever wrote? I suppose it is very often the first that children study at school.
That hasn’t been true for many years now. As mentioned in my other reviews of the play, I’ve been at literature teaching discussions where it has been rightly pointed out that its appeal as a GCSE or A level set text for teenage girls is around nil. I suspect it’s earlier popularity was among those males with a classical education, to whom it was light relief. That 1962 writer (Glen Byam Shaw) adds:
Although there is something to be made of the contrast between Portia and Calpurnia, no actress of importance would thank one for the chance to play either part.
Not one for The Globe’s avowed intent to have 50 / 50 gender balance in casting either. The play has 34 named roles, only two of them are female, and adds “citizens, senators, guards, attendants.” Even with doubling and trebling up, it requires a large cast, and annoyingly a lot of two or three line roles get named in the dialogue. As well as the sixteen “citizens of Rome” (with several non-speaking women) even Portia and Calpurnia had to put on the sackcloth garments of the poor and join the mob.
Brutus (Alex Waldmann)
Anyway, it is being done in togas, tunics, swords and sandals (for a change). All the men are played by men. All the women are played by women. The Romans mainly look European. It takes place in Classical Rome in 44 BC, not in Burkino Faso 1987, Berlin 1945 or Brixton 2017. That is an innovation nowadays. AND it marks the very welcome return of Alex Waldmann to the RSC as Brutus, plus James Corrigan, who had such an impact last season as Paloman, is playing Mark Anthony. Martin Hutson was in the Chichester Antony & Cleopatra in 2012, and was easily the standout performer in that play as Octavius.
Also look at the photo above. It looks magnificent. Most of the cast are in for the Rome season, though Alex Waldmann is just in this one. At the end, the suspicious glare that Mark Antony was giving Octavius was such, that I was sure both actors would be doing the same roles in Antony & Cleopatra, but unfortunately not so. The set is a season set too, and highly flexible, platforms slide up and down, the pillars and statues are lost at the interval. The red sky projection for battle looks excellent, as does the frame of the military tent.
Brutis (Alex Waldmann) and Portia (Hannah Morrish)
I loved the interpretation. The quality of acting, with perfect diction all round, was married to detailed line interpretation, making sense and meaning of what can so easily be (to me) ranting verbiage. You felt every syllable had been weighed and considered by actors and director. It was, unusually, totally free of gimmicks and anachronism. If you like, it is a traditionally very well done version of the play.
The intensity of the first half was spellbinding. In particular, Brutus (Alex Waldmann) and Cassius (Martin Hutson) had a powerful chemistry going between them. Alex Waldmann has a strange power of “sincerity” in every role.This was a deeply troubled Brutus working against a fiercely intense and neurotic Cassius.
Martin Hutson as Cassius
The complexity of expressions and body language as the plotters stood in a circle and steeled themselves to assassinate Caesar will repay repeated watching … except that on RSC Live broadcast or DVD, we’ll be confined to the selectivity of the camera, rather than being able to see them all.
The killing of Caesar
The question at the heart of the play is the “assassination no murder” discussion, where topping the tyrant is preferable to war, or for Rome, maintaining a republic against a would be dictator. Think the 1945 General Election, dismissing Winston Churchill after his war record. Different leaders for War and for Peace. History is divided on Brutus, so that Dante confined him to the innermost circle of hell, while Mark Anthony, speaking Shakespeare’s words, calling him the noblest Roman of them all. The character of Caesar fascinated the Elizabethans, and in 1599, as the queen aged, the succession became the worrying issue for England. Shakespeare had had to eschew English history plays as dangerously political, and transpose the questions to Rome.
The plotters assemble
I’ve seen enigmatic and noble Caesars, but Andrew Woodall made it clear that this one was an overbearing and arrogant figure. The murder was superbly executed (or rather Caesar was superbly executed) with Brutus hanging back and forcing himself to join in. Every plotter had a distinct personality as the knives were put in. I haven’t seen so much stage blood since The Globe 2014, the year of excessive stage blood, but then the Roman plays invite gore. They spent the entire interval with the squeegees, mopping up.
Cassius (Martin Hutson)
It’s the first time ever that the second half seemed to make sense, and escape from my normal sense of people running about shouting and clanging swords on shields to no purpose. Again, the Brutus- Cassius interaction with two great actors in Waldmann and Hutson was the pivot on which that rested. The crowd for the two funeral orations was very large and carefully choreographed … I noted that those kneeling at the front and sides, potentially blocking views, kept moving every few seconds so your view was only obscured momentarily. Both Alex Waldmann as Brutus and James Corrigan as Mark Antony excelled in making the orations meaningful, and highly interactive with the crowd. Mark Antony’s speech is the high point of the drama. We have all seen enough mealy-mouthed political twisting in recent years to sit back and enjoy the manipulation … at least we avoid the 21st century “End of. Let’s move on …” beloved of the political classes.
The battles were fought with resounding brass accompaniment from the musicians … tuba, euphonium, trumpets are all powerful and that was all first rate.
Costume was strictly Roman. We know from paintings that the Elizabethans of 1599 knew what Romans wore, though no doubt an authentic practices production recreating 1599 would put togas over Elizabethan costumes. Costume shone, even if my companion points out that nylon never hangs quite right … with that much stage blood to wash away, there can’t be a choice! I wonder if this Rome season is deliberately contrasting with The Globe (the RSC and Globe so often seem to compete). It’s the sort of costume choice people would like to see at The Globe, but are unlikely to get this season. We first met Angus Jackson’s direction in the Frank Langella version of King Lear at Chichester, and that was, like this, beautifully done and articulated in a traditional style. You almost wonder if the choice of Angus Jackson as season director was a deliberate contrast to the current Globe season.
The final bows were self-effacingly democratic … personally, I’d have had Alex Waldmann, James Corrigan and Martin Hutson singled out to milk some well-deserved acclaim. All three gave wonderful and memorable performances, Andrew Woodall too, but as we know Caesar doesn’t have that many lines in the play.
Whatever you say, it’s a boys’ play, though in the battle scenes they did have women fleeing across, pursued by soldiers. It’s also long … 2 hours 45 minutes plus the interval. Fortunately it never felt “long. Looking back at my other reviews, the play impressed at the RSC in 2012 (though this was definitely better) and The Globe in 2014 (again this was better) but I still maintain its pleasures are confined to a narrow emotional band. I guess I went in to this performance and this review, prepared to bury Caesar, not to praise it. (Ouch!) Like the mob listening to James Corrigan’s Mark Antony, I was won over.
It was so well done by this director and cast that I’m going for a five stars. I still think the play is intrinsically flawed in construction BUT this time it worked.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
Was it misguided to combine this with Antony & Cleopatra on the same day for press reviews? It halved coverage, as the two got lumped together, and it only makes sense if the actors continue in the same roles through both plays … Mark Antony, Octavius, Lepidus. But they don’t. Also the director is different. We saw it as a single performance.
Michael Billington, Guardian, ****
I’ve never seen better expressed Cassius’s initial wariness at broaching the idea of assassination or his mounting exasperation at his colleague’s disastrous follies. Everything about this production feels right.
Domenic Cavendish, Telegraph ***
Mark Shenton, The Stage **
Ann Treneman, The Times **
Essays by Mary Beard and James Shapiro soften the 25% price hike to £5 (The Globe was only £4 last week less a 10% members discount, making it £3.60.) However, while The Globe continues with excellent essays, it does pad its programmes out with how the theatre was built, repeated in every programme.
The links show that this is a cast who knows an iambic pentameter when they see one.
The Duchess of Malfi – 2014 Wanamaker Playhouse (Antonio Bologna)
As You Like It, RSC 2013 (Orlando)
Al’s Well That Ends Well, RSC 2013 (Bertram)
Hamlet, RSC 2013 (Horatio)
Richard III, RSC 2012 (Catesby)
Wars of The Roses: Henry VI, Rose Kingston (Henry VI)
Wars of The Roses: Edward IV, Rose Kingston (Henry VI)
Wars of The Roses: Richard III, Rose Kingston (Tyrell)
King John, The Globe 2015 (The Bastard)
Antony & Cleopatra, Chichester 2012 (Octavius)