Politics seems, in equal measure, an art of resolution and of antagonism, and Julius Caesar, perhaps one of the most influential of the Shakespearean tragedies, takes this to heart. Wherever solutions arise within the play, a new contradiction negates their promise entirely. The recent RSC production of the play, directed by Angus Jackson, was timely insofar as many feel the current period reflects its upheaval.
The experience of watching the play projected live far from its place of production, in Stratford-upon-Avon, within our local City Screen Picturehouse was at first strange. There was I, sat amongst one audience, coughing and murmuring, listening to another. As soon as the play began, however, this strangeness dissipated and, whilst I never escaped fully that eerie sense of there being a more immediate audience with greater access to the play, the hard beat of cultic drums and mad visage of an animal sacrifice made this interpretation of Rome real.
As is known well, the play begins with Rome dominated by Julius Caesar, who has recently resolved a civil war by defeating his rival, Pompey, and offering clemency to his surviving opponents. This move simultaneously established his hegemony and maintained the façade of the Republic, something oft crudely portrayed since the last century in an Orwellian manner. For this reason, Jackson was clever to ground the play within its Roman setting, rather than modernise it into some presidential fiasco or dull Brexit affair. Thus, whilst the Caesar portrayed by Andrew Woodall might be hailed as Trumpish for his quickness to anger and his general pomposity, it is a safe claim that whatever modern political reading Jackson intended was, literally, so cloaked that the nuances of the characters were left mostly unspoilt.
What was manifest, though, within this production was a Republican bias. However, this worked well, making it feel just that Caesar, the populist dictator threatening to turn monarch, should be usurped by the Senate in order to restore liberty to the Republic. Despite the seedy and at times maniacal Cassius, the initiator of the conspiracy expertly portrayed by Martin Hutson, the assassination was elevated to the level of a ritual sacrifice to Libertas by an extremely charismatic Brutus, portrayed here by Alex Waldmann. Both actors must be commended for their work, which was what elevated the Republican cause most of all, albeit at the expense of lessening the impact of the acting of their colleagues.
The Mark Antony of James Corrigan, for instance, was quite disappointing compared to their vivacity for a large portion of the play. Whilst it is unfair to expect Corrigan to have channelled an Antony analogous to a brooding Marlon Brando or uncouth James Purefoy, his Antony felt akin to a public schoolboy leading the mob. Alas, it was not until Corrigan was flanked by the cacophonic Octavius of Jon Tarcy that the seriousness of his role was realised and he managed to evoke a deep solemnity. The co-conspirators of Cassius and Brutus, however, were either inept or nonentities throughout, leading one to wonder how their blatant insincerity could ever have coaxed Caesar away from safety. This is not to say that this production was bad, but simply that it had only two genuine titans. Everyone else, besides maybe the etherealised Caesar, were mere actors upon a stage. Overall, though, this was a very good and oft shockingly bloody production of a play that never ceases to be of contemporary relevance.