Royal Shakespeare Theatre
This review is based upon the first preview, so if you come to see it there may be some small changes and, with luck, some cuts to the first half before the interval at the end of Act III.
As we might expect at the moment Atri Banerjee’s production is awash with inclusivity, some of which works to the advantage of the play. I found it stretching the credibility of Rome’s inclusivity that Calpurnia (a Roman) has a strong accent unlike any of the others. However, the best idea was that Lucius was deaf. The text makes clear that Lucius expresses himself physically with his drowsiness. His haste in running errands for Brutus emphasised this. It also brought out something very interesting about Brutus who had chosen to have a deaf servant, unable to hear what Brutus was up to, effectively played somewhat inscrutably by Jamal Ajala. Brutus throughout appears to be open and transparent and yet is sometimes powerfully misguided and naïve, hence ultimately inscrutable, too. Banerjee’s masterstroke (oops…. maybe I should have said personstroke) was that Brutus’s conversation with Lucius about Lucius being the agent of death was done silently, through mine. The most powerful death I have seen and an amazing contrast to the noisy raucous death of Caesar earlier.
You need to be prepared for Brutus and Cassius being played by women. I couldn’t figure out why or what this added to the text. I supposed it was just copying last year’s production at Shakespeare’s Globe. An ‘anything you can do I can do better sort of thing’ Ultimately unrewarding. Thalissa Teixeira was outstanding as Brutus. Every word was audible whichever way she was facing and the actor endowed the character with both charm and complexity. Kelly Gough’s forward-stooping Cassius was less convincing and on this occasion not entirely audible unless she was facing you. Her Irish accent often obscured her consonants.
This production is designed to tour and so it is done on a bare stage with a large revolving light box, reminiscent of design in the 1970s and 1980s. The costumes are modern: functional rather than revealing character. There is a lot of blood at Caesar’s murder which the conspirators say they are washing their hands in. It dries very quickly, however. It also looks black even though the characters say it is purple. Jasmin Kent Rodgman’s minimalist abstract musical score is atmospheric, modern and appropriately sparse.
Perhaps drawing on the success of the touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the Mechanicals were played by members of the local amateur theatres, this production also involves local people who form what is called a Community Chorus. One of these black clad women is Alexandra Ferrari whose extremely powerful singing voice is as eerie as it is skilful. The others come on from time to time, stand at various points upstage and have very little to do except breathe heavily and audibly, occasionally accompanied and even led in the exhalations by Joshua Dunn who plays Cinna the Poet. I found them pointless, irritating and distracting. Ultimately I felt sorry for them, not as actors but as real people who had wandered into a production by mistake.
One of my other annoyances was the amount of sawing the air with the hands. It was such a mannerism that the actors must have been told to make a hand gesture for every word of the text. This took time so the delivery was very, very slow and there was far too much television-style emphasis of insignificant words. Important words were often highlighted by a pause before they were delivered. I would not have imagined a few years ago what a loss to the RSC Cecily Berry was.
Seared on my memory is the production of Macbeth where there was a clock upstage showing real time while the Porter chalked up numbers on the wall. Unfortunately there is the occasional appearance of a digital clock in this production, too, counting down two minutes before Caesar is killed and showing how long until the end of the play. There were also some big projected captions – PAUSE and INTERVAL. Another unnecessary thing. Designer Rosanna Vize appeared to cram in as many distractions as possible.
Thalissa Teixeira’s Brutus apart, the outstanding acting performance comes from Matthew Bulgo as Casca who is played as a much more significant character than usual and who has very strong stage presence. From his first entrance he was clearly a force to be reckoned with and a powerful one, too. Both Brutus and Cassius paid attention to him. I had not seen a production of Julius Caesar before where he was so important as a creator of cohesion in the play.
This is a production well worth seeing. It has some really good ideas and two fine acting performances. As for the rest I am sure different people will make different things of it.