Without making it sound like an end of the pier revue, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s summer season kicks off with Atri Banerjee’s production of Julius Caesar. Having started with The Tempest, it’s the second in a series of plays grouped under the theme of Power Shifts, and there’s no doubt that’s highly relevant in these tortuous political times that we’re all facing. I’ve no statistical proof of this, but I think if you got a bunch of Shakespeare devotees in a room together they’d agree that Julius Caesar is one of their favourite offerings from the Great Bard. It’s packed with exciting characters, memorable speeches, impactful incident and more deaths than you can shake a stick at. And it couldn’t be more suited to an examination of power shifting. So it’s a great shame to come away from a production regretting many of its directorial decisions and opportunities lost.
The production is so heavily stylised that it alienates you from the start. Six members of the Community Chorus come on stage, and you think they’re going to sing something passionate and portentous. Instead they give us some heavy breathing like they’re expelling the bad energy at the end of a Vinyasa Yoga session. The rest of the cast come on stage and start running around; after a while they form into a pack and give what I can only describe as an homage to the Michael Jackson Thriller routine. This leads into some chanting (naturally) and Mark Antony starts to howl like a wolf. It’s at this stage that you realise this production is not for purists. The trouble is, if you’ve already lost the goodwill of the crowd by this stage – and Mrs Chrisparkle had already decided that this wasn’t going to be for her – then you’ve got a big uphill struggle trying to get it back.
As you might expect from the Royal Shakespeare Company, there’s an abundance of female actors taking on the traditionally male roles and, despite the odd misplacement of a pronoun here or there, it never seems forced or inappropriate; in fact, it helps gain a new insight into some of the characters. The acting is also first-rate throughout, which really gives purpose to the production. The text is spoken clearly and with conviction; in fact there’s very little that you hear* in this production that doesn’t satisfy even the most pernickety Shakespeare fan. (*One exception, that I’ll return to later.)
No, the problem with the production is with what you see. A blank stage, with a distracting back projection that does little to set the scene. A mishmash of costumes that neither inform us of the status of the characters nor the era in which the play is set. There’s the return of what I think of as the RSC Clock – a ticking countdown that creates a two-minute pause after the death of Caesar – for no discernible reason whatsoever, other than to minimise its impact – and a twenty-minute countdown during the interval. It was the RSC Clock that contributed to the mess that was their Macbeth in 2018, and whilst it’s less damaging here, it’s still a pointless complication. Nothing looks sillier than when a clock ticks down to zero and nothing happens – as at the end of the interval, when at zero hour some people were still queueing for the loo, and it was probably another two minutes of staring at a stopped clock before the play resumed.
Despite a number of deaths, there are no dead bodies – think about that – nor are there are any weapons. Killings are mimed, and there’s lots of semi-balletic prancing around which certainly takes away from death’s sting, but unfortunately looks rather ludicrous. When Brutus kills herself by running onto Lucius’s outstretched hand, it resembles the kind of game you might have enjoyed in the school playground aged seven. And there’s the blood. Being Julius Caesar, there’s an awful lot of it. “Let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood,” says Brutus, “…and waving our red weapons o’er our heads, let’s all cry “Peace, freedom, and liberty!””
There’s a clue there – red. So why is the blood in this production black? And it’s not blood-like but a thick gooey gunge that gets on everyone’s hands and clothes; and, of course, with no weapons, Caesar is basically patted to death by messy hands, making the memorable “unkindest cut of all” reference redundant. It’s as though everyone is smeared with molasses; maybe Caesar was diabetic and was killed by a high blood sugar surge.
Let’s not forget the revolving cage of death. As more and more characters get despatched to heaven above, they start to populate a huge cube at the back of the stage. The more people who join them, the happier those already dead seem to be to greet old friends; and I must say, the silly childlike hello wave between Caesar and Brutus is cringeworthy. And the cage revolves; not by some magic stage technology but by two stagehands pushing it around like a broken-down car. Frankly, it’s inelegant and embarrassing.
You may not be surprised to see that the ghetto blaster makes a reappearance, so that Brutus can relax to the tune of Caetano Veloso’s song Nine Out of Ten. I know this because the programme told me. I’d never heard the song before and I’d never heard of Veloso, but I’ll bet my bottom dollar it’s contemporary of neither Roman times nor 1599. When aspects of a production only make sense to the audience after they’ve read a programme note explaining them, there’s something not quite right with the production. It’s a little like trying to wade through T S Eliot’s Waste Land and then turning to his notes in desperation. The programme also explains the reason for the RSC Clock; personally, I think it’s pretty tenuous. Banerjee describes the collaboration between the various cast members which led to the structure of the production as being “quite magical”; whereas to us it felt like it was a production that had been put together by committee. And what I can only describe as being far too clever-clever.
So let’s turn to those show-saving performances. Thalissa Teixeira is superb as Brutus. Noble, honourable (as Mark Antony will tell us) and with a vulnerable compassion that defines her dilemma of being an unwilling conspirator, she gets all the character’s nuances and conveys them with clarity and authority. There’s a terrific balance between her and Kelly Gough’s Cassius; Ms Gough gives us a volatile and excitable reading of the role, emphasising the character’s motivations and emotions with great clarity. And William Robinson is terrific as Mark Antony, slightly wet behind the ears, turning that “tide of man” with a brilliant performance of the Friends Romans Countrymen speech.
The other conspirators are all very well portrayed – Gina Isaac’s Decius Brutus is delightfully deceitful, Matthew Bulgo’s Casca splendidly reserved, and Katie Erich’s Caius Ligarius impressively earnest. Joshua Dunn makes a good job of Cinna the Poet’s untimely death, and there is some light comic relief from Jamal Ajala’s Lucius being made to run on and off the stage ad fatigatum – at least I think it was meant to be comic relief. Annabel Baldwin’s Soothsayer is turned out like they’d just got off the exercise bike at the gym, but nicely delivers their portentous lines with matter-of-fact clarity rather than with Up Pompeii-style wailing.
Nigel Barrett plays Caesar as an atypical military hero; you’d get the sense that he’d rely on his foot soldiers to win any battles, and he appears as a someone more likely to enter a dad dancing contest rather than being a feared General. It’s an interesting reading of the part – not one that I really attuned to, but you can’t win them all.
I was so looking forward to this production; but in the end I was so disappointed with it. To say this is a curate’s egg is to be kind to curates. Worth seeing for the acting, especially Ms Teixeira and Ms Gough’s verbal sparring and Mr Robinson’s oratory. As for the rest, I’ll draw a veil. Julius Caesar is playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 8th April, and then goes on a nine date tour until June, to Canterbury, Truro, Bradford, Newcastle, Blackpool, Nottingham, Norwich, York and Salford.
Production photos by Marc Brenner