Review – Julius Caesar, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 28th March 2023

Julius CaesarWithout 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.

Community ChorusThe 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.

ThriillerAs 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.)

ClockNo, 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.

CaesarDespite 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!””

CassiusThere’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.

ConspiratorsLet’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.

CiceroYou 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.

BrutusSo 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.

Decius BrutusThe 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.

Mark AntonyNigel 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.

LuciusI 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

Two Disappointing For More!

Review – Cyrano de Bergerac, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th April 2015

Cyrano de BergeracI’m not sure, gentle reader, how I’ve reached the grand old age of (insert grand old age here) and still be ignorant of Cyrano de Bergerac. I’d never seen the play, or any of the film adaptations, never even read anything about him. All I knew of him was that he was French and had a big nose. So I was delighted to see that Anthony Burgess’ translation of Rostand’s 1897 play was to be part of this year’s Made in Northampton season at the Royal and Derngate; finally, a chance to fill in that particular knowledge gap.

Nigel BarrettThen last Friday I saw some worrying comments on social media, following the production’s first preview. Incredibly long, people said; very boring. People not only left at the interval, they left before the interval (a very bad sign). “Take your pyjamas” someone suggested. I broke the news to Mrs Chrisparkle that we were due for a bumpy evening. She fixed me with that “oh great, I work hard all day and then you subject me to a tedious night at the theatre as a reward” look. But I had managed to convince her not to leave at the interval of The Secret Adversary recently, on the basis that she could simply nod off during the second act if she wanted. Relationships are all about compromise, aren’t they?

Rehearsal 1So, if like me, you are an Ignoramus de Bergerac, let me outline the story. Cyrano is a noble soldier, a brave fighter, a sweet-talker, a poetic muse and morally ever so decent. All the things that would suggest a fantastically lucky life were it not for his nose. It’s a nose that knows no bounds. A conqueror of a conk. I’m not being nose-ist, Cyrano himself looks his nose straight in the face and tells it like it is. You could attempt to butter him up with flattery about his appearance and he’ll knock you down saying he has a proboscis as big as a mosque is. (Yes, be prepared for a lot of verse or worse as well). With that ugly protuberance he lacks the confidence to settle down with the lady of his dreams, the lovely Roxane (a distant cousin but they seemed to do that sort of thing in those days). But she comes to him and expresses her love – and he can’t believe his luck. Rightly so, because it’s not for him but for an eye-catching lad called Christian, a new recruit in Cyrano’s company. Rehearsal 2Roxane asks her old pal to look after him, to which Cyrano, being the decent chap he is, and also unable to do anything to upset Roxane, agrees. Christian though, is all trousers and no mouth. He hasn’t a poetic voice or eloquent tone in his brain or body, so when he has to write words of love to Roxane, he hasn’t a clue how to go about it. So Cyrano writes Christian’s letters to Roxane with all the flowery eloquence she seeks; thereby both strengthening her relationship with his rival in love, whilst at the same time providing an outlet for Cyrano’s own passion. Cyrano even engineers a situation whereby Roxane and Christian can marry; but then Cyrano, Christian and the rest of the troop are called to war. Will love, or indeed any of them, survive? I’ve already told you too much.

Rehearsal 3It’s a long story, it’s an epic story. Rostand goes into incredible detail about many side issues that have very little bearing on the main events, although they do enhance the characterisations and give extra background to the meat of the plot. The Burgess translation came out in the early 70s, and I’m wondering if long plays were a thing of the time. I remember seeing (with enormous excitement) Albert Finney’s Hamlet at the National in 1976, notable for the fact that they acted out the entire text. Not one interjection was cut. It started at 7pm and ended sometime after 11pm. In comparison, the three hours ten minutes spent in the audience for this production of Cyrano de Bergerac (co-produced with Northern Stage, based in Newcastle) is lightweight. However, tastes change; we live in busier and more immediate times; and with advancing years, the ability to sit for that length of time without one’s buttocks crying out for mercy declines. Or, maybe it’s a Northern Stage thing. The only other production I’ve seen by them is last year’s Catch-22, almost exactly the same length, and equally trying on the brain and the body, for the same reasons.

Rehearsal 4It’s a tricky one. You really do feel, as an audience member, that the whole thing is simply too long, and that surely they could have made a few more cuts to bring things to a head a bit more quickly. However, I sympathise with the production team. When you consider what parts you might exclude you do run the risk of removing essential elements from the play. The opening scene contains the most waffle – all that scene setting in the theatre is largely irrelevant to the rest of the play, and I think you could lose a lot of it without a problem. I can also think of a couple of scenes where long speeches could have been made shorter and we’d still have got the gist – but we would have lost some beautifully manicured language as a result. I don’t know if this current version already has some cuts. But what is one to do? Few people flinch (indeed, most are grateful) when modern productions of Shakespeare make generous excisions from the original text. Perhaps it’s because Cyrano is less frequently performed than your average Shakespeare that we feel the need to experience it in its Full Monty completeness. I genuinely don’t know the answer! But it really is, and feels like, a long play.

Nigel Barrett and John Paul ConnollyIt’s written in verse too, which has its own challenges for the viewer. Again, comparing with Shakespeare, we’re used to the rhythms of poetry in drama, but it’s only in some of the comic plays that his rhymes actually rhyme. Here we have a lot of rhyming in a story that’s essentially tragic. If rhyming couplets are the kind of thing that do not make your heart go ping, you’ll find the play will quickly pall and lose the desire to see it all. Nigel Barrett and Chris JaredWe did have some non-returners after the interval last night. I thought some people wouldn’t be back, for the second act of Cyrano de Bergerac. That’s a shame because the second half, makes you cry and laugh, more than the first does, if you get my drift, cuz. Watch those rhymes that don’t end, a sentence – they can send, your brain into meltdown anticipating, the next word. Right? (That’s enough berating).

George Potts and Nigel BarrettFor the most part the language is actually very beautiful. It’s thoughtful, sensuous, inventive, and exquisitely constructed. Like Shakespeare to Othello, Rostand/Burgess gives all the best lines to Cyrano, and Nigel Barrett’s voice coats them with honey whilst still injecting them with superb sense and emphasis, not merely wallowing in lavish recital. His voice makes a great contrast with the Tyneside accents of the ensemble, setting him apart from the rabble and underlining his nobility. As a Northamptonite, it did strike me a bit odd at first that all these people sounded like Geordies, but actually, as the soldiers are mainly Gascons, adrift in another part of France, it’s absolutely appropriate that they should share a recognisably different accent.

EnsembleThere is a bizarre, unexpected twist to the language at the end of Act One, where Cyrano suddenly shifts into Carry On mode, with a heap of double entendres and sexual mimework – a Kenneth Williams-style “ooh Matron” would not have been out of place. But then this is a production of surprises. It starts, not with a bang, but with a warm but modest “hello”; it is interspersed with occasional rap numbers. Not the kind of professional rap that would win you a MOBO award, more the kind of thing I might embarrass myself with after a heavy night on the Shiraz. That cheeky mixture of the modern with the archaic gives it a somewhat eccentric style, which we both rather appreciated. The setting is a gymnasium, and when you enter the auditorium you witness various fencers practising their lunges and parry-ripostes. CyranoI rather liked the unusual staging, although I didn’t so much care for the brown fabric dummies that constantly littered the stage – with its stylised language and setting I thought the play deserved something more stylish than that. I also enjoyed the occasional overspill of the action into the stalls; a device maybe, but it really does help the audience and the play to integrate. As the play progresses, the extraneous setting, surprise gimmicks and additional characters seem to get fewer and fewer, focussing your attention on the true nub of the play – the unorthodox threesome between Cyrano, Roxane and Christian. The final resolution was incredibly moving and I absolutely believed in everything these characters did – I almost forgot it was a play.

Chris Jared and EnsembleThere was some damn good acting going on out there too. We both really enjoyed the technically excellent performance of George Potts as both the vain and manipulative De Guiche and the open-hearted Ragueneau – two very different characters with contrasting bearing and voices, and for whom Mr Potts frequently had to quick-change as they appear in rapid succession. John Paul Connolly nicely captures the excesses of Lignière and loyalty of Le Bret in roles that don’t otherwise have a huge amount of individuality in them. Chris Jared is impressive as Christian, nicely mucking up Cyrano’s attempts to woo Roxane vicariously by clamouring for a kiss and credibly conveying his sense of dismay that he isn’t a more refined suitor. Mrs C particularly enjoyed his realisation that he didn’t want Roxane to love him as an imitation-Cyrano, he wanted her to love him for the numbskull he genuinely is. Think of the problems Joey Essex would have courting Victoria Coren, and you can see how relevant this story still is today.

Cath WhitefieldI really liked Cath Whitefield’s performance as Roxane, a delicate balance between the prim and the earthy; there’s a beautiful scene where she’s wide-eyed with excitement at telling Cyrano she has fallen in love with Christian. She really conveyed that sense of dangerous thrill and emotional satisfaction you get when you realise you’ve met The One. She’s also incredibly moving in the later scenes, frittering away her hours in recollection and coming to the final realisation of the truth about Christian’s letters. The ensemble, which features performers from the North scheme at Northern Stage, give very good support and play dozens of smaller roles. I particularly liked Kylie Ann Ford’s portrayal of Roxane’s chaperon, a busybody who is remarkably easily sidetracked; and Matt Howdon makes a terrific fop.

Cath Whitefield as RoxaneFor a production of Cyrano to work, you have to have someone awe-inspiring as the lead actor. This production has it in droves, with a spell-binding performance by Nigel Barrett as Cyrano. Given the extent of his experience in his programme bio, I’m surprised we haven’t seen him before; but I’m delighted that we have now. He bestrides the stage like a Colossus, as someone once said; he’s one of those performers you just can’t take your eyes off – and not only because of the splendid way in which he sports his nose (I do hope it isn’t real.) He conveys absolutely Cyrano’s dichotomy of being fearless in war and vulnerable in love, and expresses all the elements of tragic heroism you could possibly wish for – one of the best performances by an actor we’ve seen in a long time. As we were walking home, I said that I’d really like to see Mr Barrett play Macbeth – I reckon he’d be perfect for the part. Mrs C said she’d like to see him as Lear – just one tragic insight into daughters and she said she’d be in floods of tears (although, to be fair, she always cries at King Lear anyway).

Cath Whitefield and Chris JaredSo, a production not without its cons, but also with some fantastic pros to balance it out. If only they could find a way of shortening it without losing its logical plot progression and elegant language it would be a 5 star show, no question. As it is, there’s still plenty to enjoy and get your teeth into. Clearly it’s a Marmite production; but if you go accepting that you will have to concentrate hard and long, and get a fidgety bottom into the bargain, then my guess is that you’ll have a great time. After it’s spent its three weeks in Northampton, the production goes to its other home in Newcastle until 16th May. A fascinating and thought-provoking start to the season!