Royal Shakespeare Company
The Lowry, Salford
June 20-24, 2023. 2 hrs 50 mins
This is a bit of a Marmite production of Julius Caesar - a Shakespeare play that’s as “full of quotations” as any.
If you like Atri Banerjee’s grafting of various present-day preoccupations on to the text, you’ll probably like it a lot. If you find that directorial method annoying, you’ll really hate it.
The contrast may well be heightened by the fact that the RSC’s resources enable him to throw all sorts of extras into the mix – live and recorded music, an extensive prologue and interludes in which the company make strange noises and do a kind of dancing (movement by Jennifer Jackson), a vivid design palette by Rosanna Vize, including black “blood” for the stabbing and the conspirators’ subsequent marking out – so that technically it’s highly impressive. But what does it all add up to?
Banerjee is keen on latching on to today’s issues (the isolated mention of the word “climate” gets its emphasis, so does the idea of the crowd breathing poisonous communal air): there’s a “Community Chorus” that doesn’t really do much but is probably very politically correct. More obviously, he’s up for gender equality in the casting, so that not only are Brutus and Cassius female roles, but so are Decius Brutus, Caius Ligarius and Octavius – and the text is duly amended to use “she” and “her”, “sister” etc – except, oddly, for the final verdict on Brutus, which is still “This was a man…”
It's a good job he didn’t try to add today’s UK politics, as any references would have seemed pretty obsolete now, the tour ending in Salford after starting at Stratford back in March.
But underneath it’s all about politics – or at least, leadership and power, fidelity and disloyalty, and the power of words to sway a mob. I rather liked the red-trousered Niamh Finlay’s Soothsayer becoming, with some PA echo added, the Vox Populi – undeniably Vox Dei in this case.
And Banerjee is cleverly able to invite us to suspend judgment on who are the good guys and the bad guys in the story – power struggles make scoundrels of us all.
The casting is both the best and worst quality of the concept. Nigel Barrett, as Caesar, is obviously in mature years (and Matt Ray Brown as Cicero, and Jimena Larraguivel as Calpurnia): everyone else is startlingly young. All political groups have their aspiring Turks longing to be rid of the established bosses, I suppose, and others willing to fight them to take those very roles.
But it’s striking how many of this cast are in their RSC debut season, and how many of those had problems with their articulation. It’s not just projection of the voice, but a matter of creating contrast in voice texture without lapsing into mumbledom. Perhaps the Lowry's Lyric Theatre acoustic takes some adjusting to, after visits to smaller theatres (the set is obviously made for much smaller stages).
The ones who did make good included Thalissa Teixeira as Brutus and Matthew Bulgo as Casca. They, and Annabel Baldwin as Cassius, made believable character studies, though they (meaning Baldwin only, such is the grammatical tangle enjoined on us in this case) was/were not always consistent in doing it.
More info and tickets here