February 19, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Julius Caesar (SATTF) @ The Tobacco Factory

Writing about web page http://www.sattf.org.uk/

A bizarre clash of three Shakespearean press nights will hopefully not have left the new Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production of Julius Caesar out in the cold. While the RSC’s Tempest and Northern Broadsides’ Othello drew the bulk of media interest, I took the road less travelled to Bristol last night for the opening of the SATTF’s tenth anniversary season of Roman plays, directed by Artistic Director Andrew Hilton.

The key strength of the Tobacco Factory as a venue is its in-the-round intimacy, and Caesar benefitted hugely from being performed in extreme close-up, the conspirators in particular communicating silently with their eyes as they took their positions around Caesar. Played in full Jacobean costume, the hats and cloaks irresistably evoked Guy Fawkes and the early modern police state, the plotters choosing their words carefully and quietly as if the walls themselves were listening. Played this way, the first half of the play became filled with suspense, the oppressive dark and low ceiling weighing down on the conspirators as their basement-hatched plans gathered momentum until they were finally and bloodily fulfilled in the sun-drenched Capitol.

Heading the plotters were Leo Wringer’s Brutus and Clive Hayward’s Cassius, both expertly performed. Their increasingly co-dependent relationship formed the heart of this production, building in layers of unspoken detail. Wringer’s Brutus was particularly interesting, already half-turned before his first conversation with Cassius. While loudly speaking of his loyalty to Caesar, he urged Cassius to continue talking, provoking him when he paused through his spoken fears of the crowd urging Caesar to be king. Cassius’ importance was in being the talker, the one member of this guarded society unafraid to speak plainly of his dissatisfaction. In many ways, Cassius was the least intelligent of the party; a doer rather than a thinker, he was the motivating force that pulled the dissidents together yet was entirely dependent on Brutus for public justification and leadership. Brutus, on the other hand, was reliant on Cassius’ drive; by himself he was reflective and relatively static, lost in the thoughts of guilt and loss that increasingly plagued him.

Their relationship was encapsulated in a mesmerising and emotionally devastating ‘tent’ scene (4.2) which was a joy to watch. Brutus relentlessly persecuted his friend, their argument an upsetting shock to Cassius, whose terror at the concept of a division between them was realised in retaliatory anger. Yet as they reconciled, and Brutus revealed the news of Portia’s death, Cassius’ grief for his friend’s loss – and frustration at himself for not having realised the cause of Brutus’ aggressiveness – overwhelmed him. He had no concept of how to comfort Brutus, taking a step towards him as if to hug him but realising immediately that it would be inappropriate. Shortly after, as Messala gave Brutus the official report of Portia’s death, Cassius sat amazed as Brutus presented himself as stoic before his men, marvelling at the ability of the man to put aside personal matters for the greater cause. Cassius left the tent, inspired and moved by his friend, and their leave-taking screamed of pain beneath the formality of their words. The importance and strength of their relationship was further underlined by the sudden intrusion into their conversation of a drunken Caska, in place of the Poet, who was dealing with his problems in his own destructive way. The quick removal of their one-time co-conspirator showed how far the original plotters had fallen apart – and how inseparable the two leaders had remained.

This relationship was echoed in the rather more troubled partnership of Alun Raglan’s Mark Antony and Byron Mondahl’s Octavius Caesar. Raglan made for an awe-inspiring Antony (if he continues in the role for the Tobacco Factory’s Antony next month, it’ll definitely be one to watch). Dishevelled and roguish in his early appearances next to Caesar’s other pristine followers, Antony was immediately identified as a danger, an unpredictable element within this formal world. Even when in full uniform with purple sash, his movements were comfortable and easy, the sign of a man utterly confident in himself. Yet this apparently easy-going nature belied a calculating and shocking rage that first poured out when left alone with Caesar’s body, his voice rising to a roar as he cried "Havoc!" Yet, following the emotional and seemingly heartfelt orations, he stood quietly on stage and murmured "Now let it work" in a tone that left no doubt that he was congratulating himself on an utterly successful performance. His coolness was further noted as he literally shrugged off Lepidus’ demands for the life of his nephew, careless of his relative’s life. In this meeting, the triumvirate gathered around a long table, the tension between himself and Octavius was already apparent, as he mocked Octavius’ youth and gazed around, openly bored, as Octavius spoke. This Octavius, not that much younger than Antony despite the repeated references to his youth, was a politician, a commander rather than a soldier, who looked uncomfortable in uniform. His arrogance and supreme confidence matched Antony’s, and it was clear that Octavius fully expected the rule. By the final scene, his orders ("All that served Brutus, I will entertain them") evoked Julius Caesar’s own assumptions of monarchical power, and he marched off stage with a final summons to Antony to "let’s away/ To part the glories of this happy day". As he marched off, Antony stood quietly on stage, before motioning to his followers and marching off in the opposite direction. We were left aching for the next installment of their feud.

The intimacy of the production also assisted, rather than restricted, the crowd scenes. The orations scene was particularly excellent; Brutus and Antony spoke from a spotlit perch in the audience’s tiered seating, while the rest of the company filled out the playing space as the mob. The tiny space was packed with screaming people, perfectly capturing the restlessness and anger in the people. Their anger was such that both Antony and Brutus had to fight to be heard – it’s a brave production that can sacrifice "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" as Antony struggled to catch his audience’s attention. The crowd were perfectly influenced by the two speakers, and Antony in particular gave a masterclass in swaying opponents by presenting himself as choked by emotion. His iterations of "Brutus is an honourable man" became increasingly filled with bitterness as the ‘injustice’ of the murder overwhelmed him.

The production’s two women were both strong, and unusually modern in their performance style. Dani McCallum’s Portia was notable for the equality of her relationship with Brutus, folding her arms stubbornly instead of going to bed and hitching up her skirts to display the gash on her thigh. Her anger with her husband was untempered by love, she instead giving full vent to her frustration at her husband shutting her out. Catherine McKinnon was more demure as Calphurnia, pleading rather than demanding her husband to stay at home. As Decius Brutus persuaded Caesar to the senate, she simply bowed her head, the happy smile vanishing as she realised her premonitions could not be avoided.

At the centre of the production’s first half stood Simon Armstrong’s hearty Caesar. Until his assassination he wore little more ostentation than the other nobles, his authority residing in his way with people rather than in trappings. Commanding and immovable, this Caesar was a military leader; not a bad man, but a presence difficult to resist. The fears of the conspirators could be understood, yet there was no obvious cause for the extent of the crime, the only moment of apparent cruelty coming in his refusal to repeal the banishment of Metellus’ brother. At the time of the murder, Caesar had seated himself in a throne and was wearing long robes, allowing the conspirators to bow before him; he had become what they feared. The assassination itself came in a moment of extreme violence, the conspirators surrounding him and stabbing him repeatedly. In his final moments, though, he saw Brutus’ face and bared a space on his breast to receive Brutus’ sword, accepting his fate in a final moment of connection with the man he loved.

There were plenty of other fascinating moments across the production. Artemidorus was conflated with Cinna the Poet, allowing extra build-up to the moment when he was murdered by the mob. The moment acquired especial poignancy as the man who had tried to prevent the murder was killed as a conspirator by an ignorant crowd. As he told his persecutors he was a friend, they even began to move on, but his innocence led him to continue answering their questions and the mob, hungry for violence, returned and beat him mercilessly to his death. There was good work from the rest of the company too, with no particularly weak links – even the young boy playing Lucius became sympathetic in his awkwardness as Brutus laid him down to sleep as the guitar he was playing slipped from his hands.

The production will be followed by Antony at the end of its run, and playing Caesar as the first half of a bigger story worked marvellously in the production’s favour, the subtle private conspiracy of the first half leading to the increasingly fast and inevitably disastrous public battles of the second. By Brutus’ suicide, the world established in the opening scenes of formality had been entirely destroyed, and the remaining movers and shakers had already begun to squabble over the scraps. To be continued, indeed.

Posted in Theatre review