We ae just back from seeing the first preview of Greg Doran’s Julius Caesar. I may be quite wrong, of course, as I was with the splendid The Comedy of Errors which I loved and got some poor reviews, but if I’m right then Julius Caesar will quickly sell out after press night. Book for it now.
The idea is pretty straightforward. It is set in Africa because it reflects lots of the revolutions which have happened there. The set is a decaying concrete amphitheatre with a tunel through the middle upstage – to Brutus’s house, to the home of the spirits, to the battlefield tent, to Saddam’s underground hideaway and to Ghaddafi’s bunker. The cast is black. One wonders how the RSC managed to tempt to many of Britain’s leading actors to take part in this production. Normal Stratford productions can often tempt two or three of the country’s most distinguished actors; here there are many.Â And they all speak in African and Afro-Carribean accents. The accent work is excellent, and far more coherent than in most productions. And what is created is an Afroish voice for iambic pentametre which works spendidly. Doran does not shy away from the extra syllabic ‘e’; it often creates a stylish and telling emphasis.
Jeffery Kissoon’s Caesar is chilling: powerful, aggressive, paranoid, loud. Sometimes very and far too loud. He has no idea about his audience. He is clueless when dealing with Calpurnia’s fears for him. It is a fine interpretation, culminating in his opening his arms to receive Brutus’s final death stab. Ann Ogbomo’s Calpurnia is also spendid. There is no sexual tension between them. She moves round him in several scenes in quite wide arcs. She is vocally very persuasive in telling him not to go to the CapitolÂ but he is easily persuaded by his flatterer. She has no chance. He’s a bastard. Full of himself.Â And thick. Ogbomo’s verse is beautifully spoken. They work together to create fine drama with hollowness at its centre.
Ray Fearon’s Mark Antony is full of smiles. I thought it was a shame that he was so fully clothed for the race, but then that might just have been me. I have seen very scantily clad Antonys who looked faintly ridiculous so maybe this was just as well. There was nothing ridiculous about Fearon’s Antony. He was smilingly sycophantic to Caesar, brilliantly manipulative with his audience, again full of well timed smiles at the oration and strong, dour and nasty at the end,Â seeing Octavius as an easily manipulated boy. Something I’d never thought of before was that Antony vocallyÂ becomes Caesar at the end of the funeral oration. He shouts as Caesar had done, both of them making the new theatre reverberate. The moment of their disagreement about left and right was interesting at the end. Antony complains about being crossed but he couldn’t care less really. He knows he has the upper hand. He smiles not at all at the end of the play.
So far I’ve written about three fine performances. But there were others, too. Â Joseph Mydell’s Casca is quite wonderful. You can’t keep your eyes off him. Every word is beautifully clear, the characterisation is complex, the intreactions complete in their intensity. Ricky Fearon’s Lucilius is just lovely. He’s a narcoleptic – sleeping at every chance and then beautifully adolescently subservient – but we underestimate him because of what Doran has him do at the end.
This production is about conspiracy and its aftermath, though, and so Cassius and Brutus lie at the heart of the play. Cyril Nri’s Cassius is a bit less lean and hungry and a bit less choleric than many Cassiuses I have seen and therefore provides an excellent foil to Paterson Joseph’s Brutus. The brilliantly cut tent scene in Act IV plays out the shifting dynamics superbly and shows a softer side to Cassius who is genuinely moved that Portia has died. His reaction to the news shows that this streak of human sympathy is Cassius’s tragic flaw, not the usual headstrong hot-temperedness. In that he has something in common with Brutus whose understanding of feelings leads him to allow Antony at Caesar’s funeral rather than his political miscalculation.
The triumph, centrepiece and originality of the production lies in the portrayal of Brutus.Â Paterson Joseph is, quite simply, magnificent. At every second the audience is aware of how he thinks and how he feels.Â He has exactly Â extraordinary emotional range and all those passages which are usually pretty dry are brought to life because we can see how Brutus feels and what he is thinking. I have rarely seen a performance with such depth, clarity and physical poise. Joseph as understood how Brutus thinks and feels in every phrase. This Brutus is human, too. The sadness behind the outward coping mechanisms to do with Portia’s death are deeply moving. Brutus is intellectually vastly superior to all the other characters and yet he, too, has his weaknessesÂ but these are about judgement: he underestimates Antony; he momentarily forgets that Cassius is not his intellectual equal; he allows social status to obscure Lucilius’s complete loyalty until he has almost run out of candidates to hold the dagger which will kill him.
This production has all the characteristics of Doran’s brilliant blocking. There is a great deal of movement. The crowd scenes create some very pretty pictures and these contrast with moments of great stilness. The costumes are modern with Roman touches of detail. The lighting is daring in some places; a sombre atmosphere is created by some unusually dark moments. The band is great and the music not overpowering. The temptation to have background music at inappropriate moments (which happens in some of the other plays in the repertoire) is avoided.
For the first time the RSC building is properly used after the play. The wonderful band played in the downstairs bar after the play which made me realiseÂ that the RSC does after all have sufficient imagination to use its almost incomparable facilities rather than rest on the laurels of its box office receipts. If the bar prices were reduced to levels which mere mortals could afford then the theatre could become a social and community space. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? I’m not holding my breath though. It is the RSC.
I thought this was the best Julius Caesar I have seen. By a country mile. I am still thinking about the power shifts involved in revolutions and will continue to do so for a long time. Power is generated and maintained by not having an interval. Although this first preview ran 2 hours and 20 minutes the cutting in Acts IV and V was so skilful that the plays’s energy and audience involvement was maintained right to the end. I have never seen a Julius Caesar where this happened before. It is a triumph for Doran and for Joseph.
As I said at the beginning, book now, while tickets are still available and while there are still some rooms for a lovely stay at Moss Cottage.