Tag Archives: Julius Caesar

Drama Queen

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 11th May, 2017

 

A kind of sequel to Julius Caesar, charting the latter years of that play’s hero, the plot mixes the personal with the political and back again.  Mark Antony, one of Rome’s three leaders, is neglecting his duties by dallying with the Queen of Egypt.  The three men fall out.  There is war.  And another war.  And so on.  Meanwhile, Cleopatra carries on like the lovestruck diva she is, with all the wiles and depth of a teenager.  It all leads to tragedy.  Of course it does.

Iqbal Khan’s production feels very much a companion piece to Angus Jackson’s Julius Caesar.  Designer for both, Robert Innes Hopkins, uses the same idea for both: first half is dominated by tall columns, the second by a cyclorama with turbulent weather… Unfortunately, it feels like a disappointing episode in a series, proving the truism that sequels are never as good as the originals.  Some scenes lack focus – a nice idea of using model ships to depict naval battles just doesn’t come off.  Antony Byrne’s Antony is in the same mode whether he’s loving or fighting – I would like him to lighten up, have more fun with his drama queen, even being reduced to her level, for love does make petulant teenagers of us all.

The stage really comes to life whenever Josette Simon is on as the Queen of the Nile.  Grand, elegant, moody, manipulative, she is a hedonist used to getting her way, and knows how to get it.  Her schemes get out of hand, though, when she gives out word that she has topped herself.  Simon is captivating as the emotionally immature Queen – but in one scene, she is togged up like an Egyptian fembot that is at odds with everything else.

I feel that Andrew Woodall’s Enobarbus is casual to the point of being underplayed – his defection from Antony to Octavius Caesar comes across as no great loss.  The mighty James Corrigan is underused as Agrippa.  Speaking of Octavius, Ben Allen retains his role from the previous play.  Here Octavius is more mature, more assured of himself.  I also like Will Bliss as a Christ-lookalike soothsayer.

Original music is by Laura Mvula and, for the most part, its effective with discordant fanfares and a sense of foreboding, marred only by the occasional use of present-day beats, as if the composer is fighting against the urge to give us a rock opera.

It’s Josette Simon that maintains our interest throughout in this production that could do with a few judicious cuts or a tighter grip on the reins.  I hope the RSC’s Rome season is not already in its decline.

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Josette Simon and Antony Byrne (Photo: Helen Maybanks. Copyright RSC)

 

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Government Cuts

JULIUS CAESAR

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 10th May, 2017

 

The current production of Shakespeare’s political thriller takes a straightforward, but stylish all the same, approach, with a recognisably Roman setting and design aesthetic: towering columns, imposing stairs, more togas than a student party – but for all its historical flavour, it could not be more current.  One gets the feeling the conspirators would have put a stop to the rise of Trump as soon as he popped his orange head over the parapet.  Closer to home, the play is rich with oratory and persuasive speech.  In the run-up to the general election, I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed that Shakespeare isn’t around to script the party political broadcasts – for all sides!

Andrew Woodall is a grand Caesar, an imposing figure of a statesman but rather up himself and, fatally, ambitious. James Corrigan is a well-built Mark Anthony – his ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ is the best I’ve seen, rousing and manipulative, a perfect scene.  And I think that’s how I characterise Angus Jackson’s production: there are moments of brilliance, such as the tension of the assassination scene, the brief flashes of combat and the sickening instances of violence (poor Lucius!) but as a whole, it’s a bit patchy, up and down.

Alex Waldmann’s Brutus is a star turn, a decent chap driven to take extreme, direct action for the greater good;  I know how he feels.  The current political climate makes me all stabby too. Waldmann is excellent in Brutus’s bigger, public moments and also the more private scenes.  The play is as much his tragedy as Caesar’s – perhaps more so.  And you have to admire the chutzpah of a playwright who kills off his titular character before the interval!

There is strong support from Tom McCall as Casca and Martin Hutson as Cassius, to name just a couple from this impressive ensemble.  This is the RSC showing that you can take a traditional, accessible approach to a classic text and still make the production seem absolutely contemporary, rather than an exercise in theatrical archaeology.

Robert Innes Hopkins’s set gives us a sense of imperial Rome: the columns dominate and the statue of a horse being mauled by a lion links power with violence.  In the second half, when the action moves from the city, the architecture is stripped away.  Stunning use of lighting (by Tim Mitchell) plays on the cyclorama, bringing sweeping, romantic, expressionistic colour to proceedings.  Mira Calix’s original compositions are brassy and percussive, discordant and searing.

Well-worth the trip to Stratford, the production refreshes the familiar lines – so many speeches and phrases have seeped into the language and popular consciousness.

Entertaining, relevant, thrilling and powerful.

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James Corrigan and Alex Waldmann auditioning for Blood Brothers. (Photo: Helen Maybanks, Copyright RSC)


Conspiracy Practice

JULIUS CAESAR
RST, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 19th June, 2012

Transported from Ancient Rome to present-day Africa, Shakespeare’s political thriller gains in the more obvious political relevance and loses some of the thrills. Gregory Doran’s production gets off to a lively start with the huge cast celebrating onstage as the audience comes in. The mood is broken by the arrival of soldiers to subdue and police the crowd. Julius Caesar is awarded unprecedented powers by the senate but not everyone is in favour. A group of conspirators plot and carry out his assassination only to find the tide of public opinion turns against them. They are hunted down. The main players commit suicide to avoid capture.

That’s the plot in a nutshell. What the play is about in my view is the persuasive power of language. People are always talking others into or out of doing things. Shakespeare’s masterstroke is the famous speech by Mark Antony, whose rhetoric is irresistible. Unfortunately, I found Ray Fearon’s muscular Antony a little too mannered in this speech, leaning on the accent rather than the words. He may as well have been singing to the mob. A shame this, in an otherwise impressive characterisation – he built the “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” speech to a perfect crescendo.

Jeffrey Kissoon as Caesar is a charismatic, avuncular dictator, comfortable with his status. The audience knows that those he holds nearest are up to no good and the tension of expectation leading up to the assassination is nicely built. From then on, the production becomes patchier. There are some moments and strong touches (I liked the Soothsayer as a shaman/witchdoctor figure, looming over pivotal scenes) but the action becomes muddied. The corpse of Caesar is like a bag of washing that has been run over – Wisely, the mob conceals it from view.

Paterson Joseph’s Brutus is a complex character – a mix of strong-jawed political conviction and wet-eyed sentiment. His relationship with young servant Lucius (Simon Manyonda) brings humour and warmth – the image of boys with firearms is all too familiar from media coverage, although I suspect their allegiance to the local warlord is born of something other than filial affection. Manyonda stole the show, proving you don’t need the showcase speeches and the spotlight to create an affecting, rounded and beautiful performance.

The set is mainly stone steps, worn and chipped, dominated by a humongous statue with a fascistic salute. Of course, the statue is toppled – it’s Revolutionary Symbolism 101, but I felt disengaged long before this point. I didn’t care that the conspirators had failed. I didn’t care that they had been caught. The pertinence of the play – the transitory nature of power – shed no new light on current situations. I suppose I wanted to be startled into realising something. I wasn’t.

And two-and-a-half hours without an interval is too long a time to sit in those RST pews.


Hilarious Maximus

JULIUS CAESAR
Derby Theatre, Derby, Monday 11th June 2012

The inimitable Oddsocks Productions turn their attention to Shakespeare’s political thriller for this year’s summer tour. I was fortunate enough to see it in a rare indoors appearance – although getting wet through and a soggy picnic at an Oddsocks show is how I know which season it is.

The staples of every Oddsocks performance are all there, so audience expectations (they have built up a loyal band of fans) are met and exceeded. The silly wigs, props and puppets are out in force – two of the conspirators turn in rather wooden performances! The audience is cast in the role of revolting Plebs – hardly a stretch, in my case.

Director Andy Barrow leads his energetic cast, as Brutus, a bit like a lost Mitchell brother in a dress. The Roman tunics make the cartwheels and capers all the more risky. As usual, the five-strong company double and treble up on characters. Lawrence Kemp’s Cassius is earnest and serious, despite the wrangles with his breastplate and toga. James Percy’s Caesar is a radical interpretation – the bathroom scene is a highlight of this very funny production. Joseph Maudsley’s Mark Antony conveys the power of Shakespeare’s rhetoric in his famous eulogy, (All together now: Friends, Romans, Countrymen…) and still makes it funny – but this is what Oddsocks does. Much fun is had with Shakespeare but it is never at the Bard’s expense. Plot and text are the springboard for a particular brand of hilarity and this one is up there with their best.

The only female member of the troupe, Kathryn Levell is put to work as Calpurnia, Casca, 2nd Citizen, and the mispronounced Clitus (her other role is a Portia) so she gets the bulk of the dressing-up fun. As ever, the ensemble outweighs the efforts of any single actor and you get a strong sense that this is a group of people enjoying what they do.

Their trademark pageant wagon has never looked better with its backdrop of classical columns and Roman statuary, and is as versatile as ever. There is a massage scene that will make your eyes water and a ‘tortoise’ of Roman legionaries that will make you gasp. The whole thing is infused with fun and a theatrical savvy that hints at a sophistication underlying the groan-inducing jokes and knockabout comedy. I will certainly be meeting up with the tour again later in the run and risk hypothermia in some sodden corner of England and I urge you to do the same.

It’s what the summer is for.