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.