Julius Caesar (RSC)

The auspices for Lucy Bailey’s Royal Shakespeare Company directorial debut were good, following her two well-received Greco-Roman productions at Shakespeare’s Globe – a quirky Timon of Athens with bungee-cord vultures and liberal flinging of excrement, and a thunderous Titus Andronicus which quickly became notorious for its daily round of pukers and collapsers in the audience.

It comes as something of a disappointment, then, to see that her new production of Julius Caesar channels some of the trappings of her former conceptual flair, but fails to use them to incite or inspire the audience. Worryingly, also, the production exposes the fact that the new ensemble, three months into its two-and-a-half year tenure, seems to be failing to cohere.

A pre-show vignette sees a dirt-streaked, scantily-clad Romulus and Remus wrestling around the stage, growling and snarling at each other, until Romulus finally kills his brother with a bite to the throat. Red confetti floats from the flytower and suddenly we are transported to the roaring music and ritualistic dancing of the Lupercal, a fertility festival which, ironically enough, signals the slow death of Rome as undercover Republicans begin to plot Caesar’s assassination.

The tense balance between civilisation and the acts of savagery which underpin it is rather unnecessarily reinforced by Grand Guignol flourishes, such as the use of a grey hair-sprouting lump of flesh which plops onto the stage when an unspecified piece of Cinna the Poet is torn off by the mob, or Mark Antony’s casual throwing around of a gore-soaked head. The result is, in fact, neither provocative nor sufficiently revolting, but creates a curious sense of detachment, minimising the visceral impact of the violent events even as they unfold.

For the most part, the performances feel functional rather than distinguished, with some particularly uneven casting among the ensemble’s lower ranks. Amongst the leads, Greg Hicks makes an unconventional and not entirely successful Caesar; the sharp voice and wiry intensity which make his Leontes such a joy to watch in The Winter’s Tale work against the impression of Caesar as a powerful public leader who inspires awe and fear in equal measure.

The production’s great redeeming feature is a quietly commanding performance from Sam Troughton as Brutus, speaking softly yet carrying an enormous moral weight as the uncertain conspirator who finds himself the figurehead of an act of shocking social upheaval. The turmoil which results when a good man is prompted to do an evil thing is very well captured, as we see every tortuous, terrifying thought etched across Troughton’s face, and deep wells of private pain and doubt glimpsed through those large expressive eyes.

– Philip Holyman (reviewed at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon)