With Trump in power in the USA and Brexit forcing real consideration of populism, the greater good, and the gulf between the ruling class view of fairness and that held by the governed, has there been a more appropriate time to stage Shakespeare’s most political of plays? Hardly. Yet, Angus Jackson’s RSC Julius Caesar is a bloody mess. Literally.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
There are three bare-chested virile champions. They might be warriors, they might be sportsmen, but they are competitive. A huge bull lies on the ground at their feet. It is dead, or dying. The men, performing some sort of a ritual, use their knives on the bovine hulk, extract something from the carcass and daub themselves with blood.
One of the men turns out to be Mark Antony. Another, eventually, plays Octavius. The third is one of the Roman elite.
Quite what this means is never clear.
This is Angus Jackson’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for the RSC, now playing in Stratford Upon Avon at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It starts with blood and gore and ceremony and continues that way, but it never really makes much sense.
Jackson’s production of Oppenheimer for the RSC was a real triumph and it revealed a directorial skill for making difficult concepts easy and for laying out political and scientific themes with comprehensible ease. He was also able to extract very mature performances from a company of mainly young actors.
Julius Caesar presents many of the same problems. The underlying concepts are hard to communicate easily and the political machinations are sharp and subtle at the same time. And Jackson’s cast is, relatively speaking, quite young for the characters in the play. Yet none of the acuity which was on show in spades in Oppenheimer is even slightly evident here. It is confounding.
Whenever one embarks upon a production of Julius Caesar, there are choices which have to be made and those choices colour everything that plays out.
How to handle the crowd scenes? How to play Caesar – benign monarch figure or grasping, power-hungry dictator in the making? Or something in between? How to play Cassius – devious, manipulating, patrician overlord or gifted thinker concerned about the rule of law or tradition? How to play Brutus – opportunistic but wise leader of men, fanatical seeker of glory, or uncertain preserver of the current rule of law? How to play Casca – dry, dour, observer of men and movement, or sly, cunning manipulator and greaser of wheels? How to play Mark Antony – simple, sporty, military minded, instinctive or cunning and deceptive, seeking fame and status?
Or, obviously, some other position in between those stated – because one of the glories of Julius Caesar is that it is both timeless and full of endless possibilities. But the play doesn’t work unless those decisions are made and the narrative plays out with them fixed and in play. Like any complex jewel, Julius Caesar sparkles differently the way you look at it.
You see this clearly by comparing Jackson’s production with Roman Tragedies. Ivo Van Hove cuts great chunks of the play, but reveals its essence to be a grasping of power between Antony, Brutus and Cassius, Octavius too. He takes his time with the sections of the play he dwells on, extracting every ounce of meaning and feeling from the scenes. He jettisons crowds entirely. Antony is the driver, Cassius second, with Brutus a pawn played well – by all.
Jackson takes a more obscure path, frankly an impenetrable one. The crowd scenes are the worst crowd scenes any production could hope to feature. Ensemble acting should be one of the key skills of those who tread the RSC boards, but there is no evidence of that here. Each scene involving a crowd, including the senseless murder of Cinna the Poet, is awkward and lamentable – although it has to be said that the power of the scene where Cinna the Poet is slaughtered by the mob is not entirely lost given the current political climate in Brexit Britain.
The major characters have fluid motivations, impulses and drives. None of them, not even Caesar, has a clear through line. Politics may be unstable, but the politicians, generally speaking, are not. They might bend with the wind or shake in the breeze, but they don’t usually invert entirely or uproot and change root and branch. Here, though, inconsistency is the new consistency – you can only rely upon a sense of confusion and malleability.
And blood. This is an orgy of blood. When Caesar is murdered, the blood flows freely and the assassins daub themselves in it, in true primitive warrior style. When Antony shows the braying crowd the rent toga that Caesar wore on the Ides of March, the blood has dyed almost every inch a deep scarlet. Curiously, though, this sea of blood neither shocks nor horrifies. The bloodless, cold, unnecessary murder of Lucius is far more startling and effective.
Different acting styles do not really assist the overall effect. Andrew Woodall’s old fashioned and lugubrious Caesar stands in stark contrast to James Corrigan’s modern mostly naturalistic, blandly simple soldier Antony, Alex Waldmann’s lost, confused, and new age Brutus, and Tom McCall’s stark and plain Casca. None of these revel in the language – both Waldmann and Corrigan seem unequal to the rich challenges their orations about Caesar offer. Both have done much better work on this stage before.
Martin Hutson comes closest to the goal Shakespeare dangles – he relishes the language well enough, and you get a true sense in Cassius of the patrician who wants the customary order to be maintained. But there is an inconsistency to the character which is typical of the production but disappointing for the best telling of the tale.
Another odd force at play is Jackson’s take on the relationship between Cassius and Brutus. Some speeches are delivered in a style that would not be out of place in Romeo and Juliet, as if there was more to the relationship than loyalty and admiration. It is, no doubt, a possible reading, but it goes nowhere and obfuscates more than illuminates.
In the end, the best work comes from Jon Tarcy, cynical, regal and arrogant as Octavius (you really do see the prospect of the great Augustus that he will eventually evolve into) and Kristin Atherton as Calpurnia, who brings a true sense of commitment and peril to the entreaties about her dreams and Caesar’s fate. These two characters are consistent throughout, where all of the others vacillate and flip-flop from scene to scene, speech to speech.
Jackson’s production, apart from the curious opening image of the Bull, is reasonably traditional. There are faux historical costumes (some red undergarmets look more like pajamas than they might) and togas which people wear with differing degrees of finesse, but the overall look of the set and costumes (Robert Innes Hopkins) is sleek and efficient. Pillars and steps, suggestive of marble, give a clear sense of the Rome that was. A large centrepiece statue of a lion eating a horse is impressive but curious – does it have any purpose other than to carry celebratory detritus?
No great demands are made of Tim Mitchell and the lighting design is perfectly adequate, and very impressive when the portents throb and Rome faces a night of unnatural natural forces. Composer Mira Calix provides a dull score which is spasmodically interesting but which never adds to the any mounting sense of menace or tension, depsite how well the orchestra play.
This is a triumph of form over substance, of youthful vigour over seasoned experience, of blood over boldness, of uncertainty over rigour. Individual moments work well enough, deaths in particular are well handled, but the joy to be found in the political machinations and motivations is, sadly, absent.
The fault here, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in Jackson’s failure to make choices, stick to them, and mould the production to suit those choices.