October 12, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘The Tempest’ (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Two entries for the price of one today, as I’ve been back to see two plays that for various reasons I didn’t fully digest first time I saw them. Many thanks to our sponsors at the CAPITAL centre for transport and cheap tickets!

‘Julius Caesar’ first. The interesting thing about seeing this production again was that last time they were experimenting with doing the whole play as a single act, without interval. Here, they had split in into two acts, cut at the traditional point between Antony’s vows of revenge and the pivotal orations scene.

I enjoyed the play more this time round, though still found myself zoning out during some of the long speeches. From up in the circle, the murder itself seemed clunkier and more staged. However, Ariyon Bakare, released from his crutches, was powerful in the orations scene, and the whole pace of the second half felt much improved. I still ultimately feel that John Light’s Brutus is the weak link of this production, and any play whose central character seems so weak will always suffer, but nonetheless I did enjoy the play a second time.

Thanks to two accidents and a roadworks, we arrived 40 minutes late to ‘The Tempest’- which meant we were spared my two least favourite moments of the production: the static storm scene and the looooong exposition scene between Prospero and Miranda.

I actually enjoyed the production more this time round, picking up on subtleties and character moments that I’d missed first time. However, the play still suffered from the same fundamental flaws- the 80s scene changes with what can only be described as ‘wibbly’ visual effects on the curtain and a static approach to much of the storytelling.

Much of it is highly innovative though- the masque scene reimagined as a tribal wedding ritual is particularly exciting, and the interruption of Ariel followed by a riotous flooding of the stage with all the other characters, culminating in a frozen moment of Caliban leading Miranda by the neck, was very powerful. The OTT acting of Stephano irritated and charmed in equal measures, and I appreciated the erudite yet doglike Caliban more this time, along with the trick of linking Caliban and Ferdinand through their similarly staged entrances as slaves.

The play still belonged to Julian Bleach’s Ariel and Patrick Stewart’s Prospero, who dominated the stage throughout. Bleach’s vocal work, ranging from his cracked singing voice to his screeching harpy curses, was tremendous, and the skill in holding his body so still throughout is impressive, while Patrick Stewart’s Arctic robustness in his furs contrasted with the vulnerability he allowed himself to show in his final monologue, as he pleaded for the audience’s applause.

It was a good production, and I enjoyed it more once in the mood for it, but I still maintain that it’s not the RSC’s best for the year- and without the draw of a big name in the lead role, I think it would have done far less well at the box office. Very glad to have the chance to see it again, though I’m even more excited about tomorrow, when I’ll be in the front row at the Swan for my second viewing of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’!

Posted in Theatre review