Review: Julius Caesar (Royal Shakespeare Theatre)
Updated: Jun 10
So here it is ladies and gentleman, the RSC’s killer summer season that you’ve all been looking forward to…Rome season? Granted, after celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday last year (both on the stage and seemingly across every media known to man, to the chagrin of some and the delight of others) they were going to have trouble thinking of a show-stopping theme for 2017. I find this theme is somewhat underwhelming, with the divisive production of “Anthony and Cleopatra” performing now and being broadcast in May, my personal favourite “Titus Andronicus” coming soon and concluding with “Coriolanus” in September, all under the hand of season director Angus Jackson. Naturally, we start with the play set the furthest back in time of the Roman plays, and I had high hopes as my first introduction to this particular play, and what better way to do it then with its traditional setting.
It’s not often this route is chosen (particularly after the Kenneth Branagh’s ill-fated traditional production of “Romeo and Juliette” last year), but I was curious to see how the design would fair. There was remarkable little for the actors to interact with in terms of set, props, costume, anything outside of other actors. It was not minimalist, so to speak, just rather empty and unsubstantial. That is, with the exception a scene set in a tent, which oddly they chose to have the stage suddenly awash with props and set pieces. It seemed to be built around the actors and the direction, rather than the other way around. That’s all well and good if you’re trying to draw attention solely to the performances, but that means those performances have to make up for the uninspiring stage image.
Though I don’t doubt the central character of this play has been debated for centuries by literary geniuses, let’s take the conflicted Brutus, played by Alex Waldmann, as our protagonist. His complexity was prominent throughout, and he could show off his ability to show multiple emotions in one facial expression. Strangely, though, I was never really engaged in his performance. I couldn’t empathise with him or dislike him. It didn’t help that most of his interaction was with a grating Martin Hutson as Cassius, who seemed on the brink of a nervous breakdown on every scene, so no moments stood out as particularly tense or important. Between the two of them one might think that the louder you shout, the more tense the scene is, though I put down this slightly tiresome boyishness to Jackson more than anyone else.
James Corrigan stood out among the cast as Mark Anthony. In his first major moment on stage, offering himself to be killed next to Caesar, I found him genuinely moving in his reverence and horror at the discovery. It felt so much closer to a real reaction to death than many theatre deaths, especially Shakespearian, through his performance. I hope I get to see him perform again. Alas, it did not keep the production afloat.
See, the production was just very vanilla. It was bland, but perfectly acceptable for what it was and if you are familiar with the play and want to become reacquainted with it this is a decent vehicle. There was something that annoyed me though, and oddly it wasn’t the production itself. It was in the short video before it. For those who don’t know, before most screenings of NT Live or RSC Live there is a short, rather self-congratulatory video of the creatives discussing their video which, though interesting enough, might have been nice to see with the benefit of hindsight after the show. In any case, in this video Jackson and Waldmann in particular discussed the social relevance of the play; of a dictator getting too big for his boots and taking the country down as he climbs. That annoyed me, firstly because Trump has no business being the figure of reflection for a piece of theatre like this, especially from a nation that, while affected, aren’t exactly suffering from his tyranny. I’m not supporting the guy but it does seem to me to be a feeble attempt to join the hateful band wagon imported from the states. Secondly, the story of “Julius Caesar” isn’t really that comparable to the rise of Trump. Caesar quite famously snuffs it about a third of the way into the play, so we don’t really get to see much of him. This could not be further from the truth for Trump, who has become so ubiquitous that his face was quite literally plastered around the school this week. After his death, there is conflict over his virtues, something I’m fairly certain would not be the case if trump were assassinated. There is no social relevance here, and the blandness of the production would have been far more palatable were they not under the delusion that they were being politically profound. Let’s hope Jackson can do better with his other productions. Two stars.
P.S. I must apologise in advance, as I’m afraid my activity on my blog is about to wain slightly. Partly because I have exams fast approaching and procrastination would not be a good idea, but also as I fear that Aberdeen is rather dry of professional theatre over the summer. Hopefully I can make up for this with more NT Live and RSC productions. Regardless, there is a lot of amateur theatre being put on that I highly recommend going to see, NESCOL’s “The Town” sounds especially good. Hope you enjoyed the review!