By George Alexander Moss
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest take on Julius Caesar is a pulse-pounding production that bloodily blurs the line between good and evil.
Julius Caesar tells the tale of a man unraveled by his own successes, powers and friendships. One of the most prominent political figures of all time, Caesar’s influence is so great that his Senate begins to buckle under his own weight. Doubt and dismay fester in the heart of his entourage, and Brutus, Caesar’s closest confidant, must now choose between the love of Caesar or the love of Rome. As the Roman Republic is haunted by whispers of kingship after nearly 500 years without monarchy, a power struggle ensues that can only be sated with blood.
In recent years productions of Julius Caesar have proved popularly successful in theatres from London to New York City, Sheffield and of course Stratford-upon-Avon. In today’s chaotic political climate, these theatrical moves are thoroughly organic. People aren’t happy with the world leaders who seem to have taken all their leadership tips from Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsey Bolton. However, what this play proves is that you might want to hold off choking Donald Trump, lest you risk launching a missile at liberalism. Who would have thunk it?
Rome Season Director, Angus Jackson, foremost emphasises the power of political speech in Julius Caesar through the influence of rhetoric. After its poisonous real-world uses to appoint Trump and enact Brexit, warped rhetoric is especially poignant here. Kate Godfrey, credited with this production’s Voice and Text Work, has well-flourished the effects of figuration and argument in the play, loading speech as a cheat-sheet, a mad scramble for strength. Rhetoric is a weapon of the characters; it puts daggers in hands and aims to justify treason to a furious mob. In everything it succeeds in, there is a cost. Radical Rome becomes entangled in its own web of fear, riddled with contradictions and charged by ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’, language deforming the Roman reality. However, in a delicious irony, what is resoundingly clear in this production is that rhetoric, despite all of its high and mighty grandeur, is completely transparent. It can both change the world and bring it to its knees in the same stroke. Therefore, the production pits every sentence with weighted meaning, not a word wasted in a series battles to persuade and to dominate. Consequently, the tragedy of how swiftly words can become war itself is a heartbreaking yet fascinating entry point to the play.
Far from being a muddle of archaic text, this production isn’t locked behind an historical sense of understanding. Though the characters parade in togas and sandals, every moment is crafted by a modern nuance that rewards the eye alongside the ear. The combined contemporary effects of lighting, music and movement work together to set up a political thriller that creates its own entire world. The stage is illuminated by enormous lighting seemingly fit for a football stadium, synth-like sounds merge with orchestra to create a modern musical twang whilst deaths are executed with shriek-worthy realism. Gasps rippled through the rows as daggers appeared from nowhere and blood flowed like freshers’ wine. Furthermore, the set design itself is impeccable, a great many scenes performed beside a statue of a lion devouring a downed stallion. Should an inattentive audience member happen to lose their way, they need only glance at this symbolism to remind themselves of what’s at stake. Essentially, though language is always key with Shakespeare, the narrative is equally communicated through a busy stage that consistently facilitates engagement.
Alongside the language and scenery, the performances enable deep and emotional explorations of Shakespeare. Alex Waldmann as Brutus gives a stellar performance of a man building his fortress on quicksand, masterfully pitting an outright murderer into a place of sympathy. Brutus is vulnerable, scared, uncertain and yet he must raise up a wall of confidence that he ends up eroding behind, creating a fabulously dichotomous performance. Moreover, alongside his band of senators, to see a majority feel legitimately cornered by the shadow of one man is in itself, a fascinating set up. Andrew Woodall’s performance as the titular Caesar makes you want to stack all your chips on behalf of his authority, making it all the more crushing when seeing him be ushered to the slaughter. However, both the performances of Waldmann and Woodall combined create a fixed uncertainty, endlessly questioning if what the senators are doing is right or wrong, a simple question given its hardest answer. To their credit, the conspirators don’t wait around and risk their potential Palpatine or Trump being endorsed by the likes of Jar Jar Binks and Mike Pence. They are unafraid to bloody their gorgeous togas to prevent what they perceive as their impending doom, and through incredible performances, somehow bravery can be admired in backstabbers. Despite their blatant naughtiness, the performances crafted by Waldmann, Martin Hutson (Cassius) and Tom McCall (Casca) especially create a ragtag group of freedom fighters over a band of stone cold killers. Put simply, performances are palpable, purposeful and practical, the play all the more visceral for each.
Thematically, Julius Caesar perfectly complicates what it means to be perceived as an untouchable leader, heroic, a friend and even to be human. What makes a leader? Can one person know what is best for everybody? Are your friends really your friends? Is everything that feels right and justified truly so? These questions can seem nigh on unanswerable and yet the production still fantastically dares to wrestle with each. It’s the best kind of mess, a play that embeds itself in the mind long after the final bow. After all, it’s a ‘Game of Rome’s’ between the players, their heart-felt versions of what Rome stands for ricocheting off each other with disastrous repercussions.
Ultimately, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2017 crack at Julius Caesar is a nuanced staging that utilities the emotional intelligence and, more importantly, reaches back through history to comment on today. Alongside all the swirling complexities that come embroiled with each, only one thing amidst the bloody chaos can be certain; Julius Caesar is a world well worth experiencing.