One of the problems with staging Julius Caesar is that much of the action revolves around the crowd scenes. Indeed, it is the fickleness of the mob that provides the play with its key turning point. The director's difficulty is how to capture the power of the masses - without resorting to a Hollywood cast of thousands.
Edward Hall's production dispenses with the opening crowd scene altogether. The play begins, in a Brechtian manner with a song on the very un-Brechtian theme of strength through the republic. Just in case anyone had any doubt that this was a decidedly fascist Rome, the curtain reveals the words "Peace, Liberty and Freedom" picked out in neon lights overlooking the stage and a crowd of black-shirts ready to welcome Ian Hogg's strutting Caesar, striding through the audience, shrouded in confetti and milking the adulation.
The key funeral oration scene also dispenses with the mob, as Mark Antony makes his speech against a background of sporadic interruptions from the darkness of the auditorium. It's an effective device as one feels the presence of a malevolent force out in the darkness, particularly when one sees the physical effect with the gruesome lynching of Cinna the poet.
The trouble with Hall's vision for the play is that there's no ambiguity about the actions of the conspirators. By presenting Caesar as such an overt dictator, we get no sense as the whether Cassius is really motivated by envy or by a need to free the state from the Julian yoke - although, in truth, it's hard to imagine Tim Pigott-Smith's petulant, raging Cassius as someone who could pull together a secret conspiracy within the heart of a fascist state.
But there are compensations. The second part of the play, which can seem disconcertedly slow after the action of the first half, is taken at breakneck pace by Hall. And there are two superb, contrasting performances from Tom Mannion and Greg Hicks. Mannion is a creepy, manipulative Mark Antony, a modern politician par excellence while Hicks provides the perfect foil to the raging Cassius.
Consummately spoken, Hicks' calm, measured and honest Brutus provides an island of reason within a sea of corruption and fury, but, most of all, his performance offers the realisation of how Brutus is both morally upright and practically wrong in equal measures. Such a holy fool would have been out of place in ancient Rome, Elizabethan England, fascist Rome and, dare one say it, modern Britain.
This is a fine production. Well worth seeing for the compelling central performances alone, but an uncomfortable reminder that honest men are often the losers.
- Maxwell Cooter
Note: The following review dates from August 2001 and the production's original run in Stratford-upon-Avon.
There is much to be admired in Edward Hall's production of Julius Caesar, but it's easier to be impressed by this version than to enjoy it. This powerful, political thriller is austere, noble and intense, but also harsh, grim and bloody.
It relates the plot to assassinate Caesar, the leader of the western world, depicts his brutal and gruesome murder and chronicles the political and military aftermath, culminating in the destruction of the conspirators. It also charts the decline of the high ideals of the Roman Republic - peace, freedom and justice - and the slide into authoritarian monarchy and empire.
The setting is a triumph of minimalism. The huge grey stage reveals either a single platform, a throne or a sunken Roman bath, but designer Michael Pavelka ensures it's always muted, functional and restrained. This mood is occasionally enhanced or shattered by sensational lighting (Ben Ormerod), sound (Matt McKenzie) and music (Simon Slater). Surely the lightning storm and heavenly portents can never have been so terrifying.
The ensemble of twenty three actors acquits themselves well. Greg Hicks is magnificent as Brutus, combining nobility, honest soul-searching and tremendous arrogance. It's worth seeing this production for Hicks' performance alone, but Tim Pigott-Smith as Cassius gives him splendid support. An actor to note for the future is young Tom Harper who plays Brutus' servant here, but already seems to wear Romeo's mantle.
Yet for all this splendour, it's not entirely a comfortable evening in the theatre. In part, the problems of the production are the problems of the play. Although written at about the same time as Hamlet, Shakespeare's mood and language is entirely different in Julius Caesar, and its classical austerity and lack of diversity is reflected in this severe and uncompromising production. It's a searing and largely humourless evening.
This mood is intensified by Hall's decision to run the two and a quarter hour play with no interval. There are a few plays, like Macbeth, where this is always to be welcomed, but I'm not sure that Julius Caesar is one of them. Certainly it intensifies the drama and concentrates the tension, but it also highlights the lack of variety and tests the audience's capacity to concentrate.
If you are planning to see a Shakespeare play for the first time, then this is not a good place to start. But, despite these reservations, lovers of Shakespeare will not want to miss the considerable riches which this production contains. It's only when it ends that you realise just how good it is.
Julius Caesar at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, continues there in repertory until 13 October 2001.