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REVIEW: Julius Caesar, RSC

The conspirators attack Caesar
The conspirators attack Caesar

Empire lacks force

Steve Sutherland reviewed the 23rd March performance at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

‘Brutus is Obama and Trump is Mark Antony.’

The heart sank somewhat reading the Herald’s headline a couple of weeks back. All this trendy modernising of Shakespeare, swopping the genders and ethnicity of roles, teasing out contemporary themes — to what avail? To show how Shakespeare was such a genius his grasp of universal truths make him as relevant today as he was in his own time? To overcome the familiarity which might keep us from coming back to the bard for more? Just to keep the acting companies interested?

Whatever, it was with much relief that, as the article unfolded, it turned out that the RSC’s latest Julius Caesar was not about to join the other current UK productions in donning an orange wig, practising its golf swing and, to mix our metaphors, tapping into an open goal. This is a brave and admirable stance considering the easy temptation to go contemporary, but the problem is, the play that leaves us with.

Director Angus Jackson’s JC is set solidly in the traditional — togas, sandals, marble statues to the fore. A huge, somewhat lumbering production, it is at best impressive and at worst ponderous, the cast often dwarfed by the staging. There is much pontificating on the nature of nobility, but the players seem lost. Alex Waldman’s Brutus is perpetually troubled, not really up to the task, Andrew Woodhall’s Caesar is a strutting cartoon of pomposity, Martin Hutson’s Cassius is wound up like a spring, perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

They all appear strained and twitchy, as if their actions are governed by interior forces beyond their control, their long hours spent individually navel-gazing, fretting over their personal motives and paranoid over the motives of others. It’s grand stuff for sure but it lacks electricity, the famous assassination of Caesar strangely stilted in comparison, say, to the mob’s feral and spontaneous murder of Cinna The Poet.

In fact, it’s the crowd scenes which work best — they crackle with edgy violence, the multitude scarily swayed to bloodlust by James Corrigan’s Antony and his slick delivery of fake news. Unlike the troubled and bickering conspirators, Corrigan wheedles like a pantomime villain, and acts on instinct, his energy attractive despite our better natures. When he suddenly snaps the boy Lucius’ neck, the audience gasps at the savagery and a rare emotional connection is made.

Otherwise it’s all big themes and small men. Hmmm, interesting. Could that be the point? History — as Brexit is our witness — is not really shaped by heroes making big decisions but petty little men full of self-interest making decisions the consequences of which they neither cared nor dared to think through.

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