June 12, 2009, by Peter Kirwan
Julius Caesar (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre
Writing about web page http://www.rsc.org.uk/whatson/7295.aspx
I’ve seen a wide variety of techniques used to conjure up the crowd who act as onstage witnesses to the orations that form the climactic set piece of Julius Caesar. Sometimes actors have moved among the audience, implicitly bolstering their numbers with the seated masses. At other times, offstage shouting has been used to enhance the noise and chaos of the listeners. Lucy Bailey’s new production for the RSC, however, was the first time I’ve ever seen CGI utilised on a stage to create a crowd. On back video screens, life-size human figures were shown moving as a mass, shouting and raising their arms, responding noisily to the words of Brutus and Antony, while real actors moved through gaps in the screens, providing some real life accompaniment for the screen audience. It was a spectacular failure for several reasons: the video crowd failed to respond in believable synchronicity with the orations; the on-stage actors were anchored to the movements of their digital counterparts; and it was incredibly distracting, introducing a layer of artifice which competed unhelpfully for attention with the on-stage action.
The projection was symptomatic of a production that suffered primarily from over-direction and over-design, a surplus of ideas that combined to make a whole that was messy and ultimately unsatisfactory. This was a particular shame as so many of the individual ideas and performances were absolutely fine; unlike the Globe’s As You Like It, this was a production that was less than the sum of its parts.
In an interesting beginning, Tunji Kassim and Joseph Arkley circled each other half-naked, snarling ferally and grappling under a projected image of the famous Romulus and Remus statue. Eventually, Romulus tore with his teeth at his brother’s neck, killing him in a mess of blood, before howling and leaving the stage. Bailey’s Rome was thus rooted in its primal and barbaric origins, the implication being that the act of the conspirators was no less savage and bloody for the veneer of civilisation that obscured it. Greg Hicks’ Caesar was visually linked back to the wild past by wearing furs and military brass instead of the more customary togas, locating him as a man of war and violence rather than a politician, part of the violent founding lineage of the nation.
Against this pagan mythology, Sam Troughton’s Brutus at first cut a somewhat messianic figure, standing in white robes among his black-robed fellow conspirators. If this was Jesus, though, Troughton’s staring eyes and passive-aggressive attitude towards Cassius made him a conflicted one, a man whose essentially decent morals clashed with an ingrained suspicion and cynicism. It became clear, in fact, that another white-robed icon made a far more compelling parallel – T.E. Lawrence. As Brutus read the petitions that Cassius had flung through his window, the beginnings of a mania crossed his face. Brutus became consumed by an obsession, a concern with his own legend and ability to influence the course of events. It was in the doing, rather than the consequences, that Brutus found his justification, a sense of basic rightness unfettered by objective moral constraints. Killing Caesar became "right", and Brutus’ ability to comprehend his own actions increasingly compromised.
It was a role that Troughton grew into during the course of the production, which was a relief after a very shaky start. The first conversation between Brutus and John Mackay’s Cassius was a bloodless, lifeless and deathly dull scene, during which the two actors circled each other with what seemed to be a fundamental disinterest in the matters of which they spoke. I was particularly surprised in the case of Mackay, normally such a wonderful performer, that his Cassius was underplayed to the point of making the character almost obsolete. When emotion came through, such as in his bitter "And this man/ Is now become a god", a hint of the complexity that drives the character was tantalisingly seen, but rarely followed through. However, Mackay too improved as the production went on, and 4.2 saw him angry and frustrated at Brutus’ increasingly detached and arrogant manner.
The manic bent of this Brutus saw his relationships with others compromised too; Brutus’ concern was Brutus. In this sense, Troughton’s performance slightly unbalanced the production, allowing a fascinating reading of the character but at the expense of others. Tunji Kasim’s Lucius, for example, was denied the closeness to Brutus that often strengthens the former and humanises the latter; here, Brutus peered at his sleeping servant with curiosity, as if remembering the emotional attachments that had defined him before his decision to turn conspirator. Hannah Young as Portia gave a gutsy and determined performance, using force to make Brutus pay attention to her, culminating in the revealing of the ugly scar up her thigh, the only thing that eventually drew Brutus’ full focus. These scenes all contributed to the development of Brutus, but bordered perilously closely on making the other characters mere foils for him.
Good work was done in individualising the conspirators, with some striking performances making this a rare production in which the individual personalities of the murderers could be distinguished. Paul Hamilton’s wounded and warlike Caius Ligarius moved on a crutch, a disabled but still formidable ally; Brian Doherty’s Decius Brutus brought an intelligent wit and influential tongue to his key scene with Caesar, while Gruffudd Glyn’s Cinna was youthful and enthusiastic, engaging with a committment almost equal to Brutus’ own. In a standout performance, though, Oliver Ryan made for a tremendous Casca. With an oily voice and fixed sneer, Ryan’s performance moved away from the humour usually associated with the character to a dissatisfied sarcasm, his tone speaking of his disgust at Caesar’s honours. It was one of those rare performances which let you see a relatively minor character afresh, a true eye-opener.
Darrell D’Silva’s performance was dismissed by some critics as reducing Mark Antony to a drunken lout, which does a great disservice to the performance I saw. In his earliest appearances, during the bacchanals, Antony was naturally ebullient and half-dressed, throwing up in a corner after a heavy night. Yet this seems to me to be entirely in keeping with what the play calls for; and when Antony joined the conspirators after Caesar’s murder, this was no lout but a furious and powerful political animal called into being. D’Silva’s handling of the orations, despite the distractions of the CGI crowd, was masterfully executed, building his rhetoric to a thunderous conclusion. "Friends, Romans…" was a cry for attention from which his speech grew in strength and structure. It was testament to the apparent sincerity of his ‘spontaneous’ delivery that he received a laugh from the audience on "Now let it work", as if his true intention had been concealed up until that point.
Greg Hicks made for a strong Caesar, if an arrogant. His treatment of the conspirators in the senate spoke of his ambition, pushing Metellus down as he spoke of spurning his request. Yet there was much human in this Caesar as well, as shown by a neatly played domestic scene with Calphurnia. The two engaged in an amusing battle of wills, which saw Caesar playfully belittling her in front of Decius Brutus to her embarrassment, and as Decius gave his alternative reading of Calphurnia’s dream, Caesar teasingly mocked her. His murder was violent and bloody, and Hicks admirably refused to try and dignify it. "Et tu, Brute?" was a cry of mocking derision, arms thrown up in defiance of the conspirators, and he died in a pile of twitches at the foot of the podium from which he had delivered his pronouncements.
While there was much to enjoy in the first half, the ensemble failed to convincingly negotiate the confused wars of the second. The soldiers of the opposing armies were drawn directly from Julie Taymor’s Titus, muddied and marching in stylised unison (and wearing ridiculous full body tights with caked mud on under their armour, which meant the actors’ torsos looked like they were creasing) and the burgeoning Triumvirate failed to make an impression of any sort. Caesar’s Ghost was escorted on by a bizarre, ghostly Calphurnia, presumably in some echo of the pagan Soothsayer and his female acolyte, but with no particular sense. The connections to Romulus and Remus were laid on with a trowel as the fight scenes lost their weapons and resorted to hand-to-hand brawling. Finally, as Strato held out his sword for Brutus, Caesar re-entered, swung a sword and slew Brutus himself. Caesar as a play tends to lose momentum once war breaks out, but instead of trying to make sense of it, there were too many ideas thrown into the mix, rendering the final scenes a confused mess that kept Brutus at its centre, but allowed all else to fall into chaos. In the final moments, as the new Triumvirate left the stage, soldiers around them spontaneously died, falling to the ground. It was one final incoherent moment in a production that suffered from trying to do too much, and ultimately ended up spoiling its own effect.
I’m reading this thinking “tick, yes, tick, yeah, that’s right…” I was shocked and surprised at how bored I was with the early conversation between Brutus and Cassius, as you say “dull” is the only word for it. At this point the Tobacco Factory managed to create two very distinct characters circling each other in intellectual and tactical intrigue, here it was like watching two trainspotters standing on a windswept railway platform swapping engine numbers. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I last remember John Mackay as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in an RSC TN.
Things only perked up for me during Portia’s first scene and we at last got something that looked like an interesting performance. The production definitely improved when Caesar and Antony came to the fore. Darrell D’Silva looked as if he had just stepped out a 1950s sword and sandal gladiator movie, which clearly distinguished him from most of the pasty-faced British cast.
The assassination was well done with Caesar literally toppling and falling when he realised Brutus was against him. Caesar’s ghost did well to point an accusing finger at Brutus and the killing of Brutus with the ghost’s sword was impressive.
However, this was all overshadowed by the ghastly projections. I hope that in years to come this will be seen as a tentative first step towards the successful integration of CGI into theatre, but in itself it was flawed and detracted from the sum of parts. I was much more impressed with the 2005 Barbican production which used hundreds of extras to create a really noisy crowd scene.
There were flashes of brilliance in this, particularly the comedy of Caesar’s dealings with Calphurnia’s dreams. But overall this was the complete opposite of the successful Tobacco Factory approach and was disappointing.
Duncan – just pouncing on a detail rather than your (as ever) useful analysis.
Surely you saw the Histories Cycle? John Mackay was a fantastic Jack Cade and Dauphin, among his other equally good roles. I did think his Aguecheek was one of the better things about that Twelfth Night, and his Camillo in this season’s Winter’s Tale is also extremely good. I think that’s why I was so surprised not to be at all interested by his Cassius…
Ah! He was Jack Cade! I had forgotten about that.
By the by, I was reading this article in which Michael Billington writes “Russell Beale’s lecture was studded with insights; I’d never noticed before, for instance, that Cassius in Julius Caesar threatens to kill himself in every scene in which he appears.”
I’m assuming that this is accurate and then wondering if this is another reason to be dismayed by a dull Cassius?