Review: Julius Caesar (Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

Angus Jackson’s Rome season kicks off at the RSC

There’s something new about the RSC in Stratford in 2017, and it’s not just the shorter, squarer thrust stage at the heart of a reconfigured auditorium. Julius Caesar is helmed by Angus Jackson – first seen here directing Tom Morton-Smith’s blistering play Oppenheimer and now overseeing the entire Rome season of Shakespeare’s plays.

And he’s brought something with him that delivers a spark of new fire in the air, a brash confidence that bodes well for the shows to come. Staging such a highly political play in these extraordinary political times might, in lesser hands, be somehow too obvious or too blatant. But that notion is rapidly and decisively put to the sword.

Instead, there’s plenty of fruitful resonance about this Caesar without it ever straying into blunt metaphor. Yes, the fickleness of the mob is a terrifying symbol of populism at its most dangerous. Yes, the manipulation of the message by sly, re-defining rhetoric is all too clear to our modern ears. But the raw power of its delivery and the spectacle of this conspiratorial tragedy make it so much more than an invocation of Trumpian machinations.

As a director, Jackson has many strengths, but one works supremely to his advantage: he allows his company to be his collaborators. The result is greater than the sum of its parts.

So Robert Innes Hopkins’s magisterial set evokes imperialism at its grandest and functions brilliantly as both the public face of Rome and the crumbling ruins outside its walls. But it is enhanced by the sensitive and articulate lighting of Tim Mitchell, the sound design of Carolyn Dowling and the subtle, evocative music of Mira Calix.

On stage, too, the same ensemble force drives through the production, with a large cast of extras creating heaps of atmosphere against which the main players can act and react. The huge number of named parts which Shakespeare supplies can sometimes obscure the storytelling, but here the narrative is never less than crystal clear, the smaller roles contributing their piece to the overall effect.

At the heart of the show is a triumvirate of excellent performances from the senators closest to Caesar himself. Andrew Woodall may carry the burden of the titular role – with considerable stature, it must be noted – but the laurel wreaths really belong to James Corrigan, Alex Waldmann and Martin Hutson as Mark Antony, Brutus and Cassius respectively.

All rising young stars of the RSC, this trio spar and spark off each other with volatility, energy and real commitment, and they are a joy to watch. There’s a constant sense of danger and an abundance of imagination in their performances that command the audience’s attention and admiration, rendering the characters’ motivations believable and imbuing them with pathos amidst the posturing and manoeuvring for advantage.

The auguries may not have been good for Julius Caesar at this time of year, but the portents for the forthcoming season at the RSC are promising indeed.

Julius Caesar runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 9 September 2017.

Running time: 3 hours