Julius Caesar

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
(2009)

Production photo

The iconic bronze ‘Capitoline Wolf’ – the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus as they stretch their cherubic necks to receive the dripping milk from her teats – is emblazoned above the Courtyard stage like a blood-red imperial banner. Beneath this representation of the founding of Rome, two actors fight like wolf-boys, scratching and snarling with symbolic fervour as a living, breathing Romulus rips the throat of his brother Remus. Romulus and Remus, Cain and Abel, brother against brother, this pre-show addition is mirrored in the second half of the play as the same actors fight their bloody civil-war battle following the assassination of Julius Caesar. The blood-soaked scene is set.

When Shakespeare’s play begins in earnest, every visual device in designer William Dudley’s repertoire is used to stunning effect. Six black gauze screens, centrally-pivoted and overlapping like huge squat head-high office blinds, twist in oblique-angled unison. Onto these screens is projected a multi-layered mass of life-sized gesticulating Romans, running and falling and gyrating in Bacchanalian glee. The Courtyard stage is peopled by the teeming horde of Rome. Later, this same horde bay for blood or, in lead-grey legionary uniforms, form serried ranks like an Italian Terracotta Army ready to enter the fray.

A vast rear-projection screen alters the landscape from amphitheatre to fire-engulfed cityscape. Ominous clouds hover overhead, or smoke and ash drop for the sky as traitors are agonizingly burned as human torches lighting up the Roman hills with Mark Antony’s bloody revenge. Indeed, there is no escaping the blood of this production. Whether steeped in the blood of Caesar or smeared with the drying, darkening blood of battle, each character carries the metaphorical stain of arterial blood-spatter into this seriously violent political play.

Directed by Dudley’s professional and personal partner, Lucy Bailey, Julius Caesar wallows in its gore. The first half of political intrigue, murder and skilful crowd manipulation leads to a second half of dizzying battle frenzy and episodic disunity. There is little doubt that the trumpets, trombones and drums that fire up the Courtyard production would have had the same jingoistic effect on the play’s original audience in 1599, aware that their childless queen was not an immortal emperor and aware that her successor was, as yet, unnamed. Tyranny and succession? A more volatile play for Shakespeare to write could hardly be imagined.

Still, into this well-designed and intelligently-articulated Roman world are placed the RSC actors. With so much visual trickery, how do they fare? Surprisingly well, if truth be told. Greg Hicks arrives in triumph as the conquering warrior hero, Julius Caesar, although the soothsayer’s warning about the Ides of March has a visible physical effect. Hicks’s Caesar is a fallible human being. Arrogant and proud but ultimately flawed in his self-belief, this Caesar seems to collude in his own downfall. When, as a ghost, Julius Caesar reappears to the haunted Marcus Brutus, Hicks presents the spectre’s revenging menace with an intensity as sharp as the knives that have pierced his character’s body.

Sam Troughton plays Brutus as a man of intellectual and aristocratic integrity who seems to stumble into this political quagmire and, once mudded, finds it impossible to extricate himself. A fine performance, filled with subtle nuance and desperate passion. On hearing news of his wife’s death, the inevitability of his own downfall is writ large in Brutus’s crestfallen face. Intelligent and moving. Hannah Young, as Brutus’s wife Portia, presents a harrowing creature who would rather die horrifically at her own hands. Young’s waif-like image of complexes is as disturbing as it is realistic. Portia’s self-harming wound is utterly believable and understandable in this fascinating and memorable portrayal.

With the Cassius of John Mackay we find the consummate politician, more at home in the Senate than on the battlefield, his perfectly-pleated evocation of Roman stylishness betraying a vanity which, ultimately, leads to his own tragic end. In fact, there is so much style in this production, introduced by the costume designs of Fotini Dimou, that the Roman conspirators appear a pretty effete lot compared to the arch-politician and man of the people, Mark Antony.

In Darrell D’Silva, Mark Antony is brought to grubby, wine-sodden life. Obviously considered more a dangerous clown than a real political force to reckon with, D’Silva’s Antony is accorded the right to speak at the funeral of Caesar. This right he grasps in his blood-smeared hands as he turns the baying mob into a mourning and conspiracy-disaffected mob of unrest. D’Silva presents us with a true soldier and orator, a ‘plain, blunt man’ who twists the call for liberty, freedom and enfranchisement into a rallying cry for civil conflict.

Veni, Vidi, Vici. But who came, who saw and who conquered? By the end of the play, we are left with more blood and more death than a nation should ever have to suffer. Was Julius Caesar feigning his thrice rejection of the regal crown? Is the overthrow of a tyrant ever justifiable? Is there an historical inevitability that those intellectuals who lead a revolution will, ultimately, suffer at the hands of those for whom they profess to act? Julius Caesar interrogates all these questions.

Lucy Bailey brings Shakespeare’s classical themes, so tainted by late-sixteenth-century political anxiety, into her decidedly twenty-first-century RSC production. As an afterthought, the six screens onto which the Roman rabble are so innovatively projected are themselves worthy of comment. An interval conversation with an RSC technician reveals that the images come from 16 projectors mounted high in the Courtyard flies. So that live actors can stand between the panels, adding a three dimensional human element to their one-dimensional cousins, but without casting any obtrusive shadows, the images must be projected down at an impossibly steep angle.

“There’s a lot of ‘keystone’ on it,” the technician explains, referring to the distortion an image suffers when projected at an angle, similar to the narrowing distortion a mason must create for a keystone above an arch, to distribute weight to the stones on either side. To overcome the perspectivally-distorting ‘keystone’ effect, a complicated computer programme is required to alter the image. “We got a guy from Disney in to do it!” Disney and the RSC? Ever the consummate showman, Shakespeare would have been proud.

Peter Lathan reviewed this production at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle. It was also reviewed in 2011 by Pilip Fisher at The Roundhouse.

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby