When I began teaching, my first Head of Department gave me some advice I’ve never quite forgotten: ‘When you are teaching Julius Caesar, the only bits worth covering are in Acts 1-3. After Caesar dies and Mark Anthony gives his speeches, it’s all downhill and all a bit of a mess really.” Well, it is all downhill, and it is all a bit of a mess – but in this version from the Royal Shakespeare Company, now touring, the downhill and the mess is neither Shakespeare’s writing nor this fresh and inventive reworking of the play, but the tragic demise of Cassius and the once ‘noble’ Brutus, and the descent of a nation into civil war.
Julius Caesar has been read often as exploring the boundaries between strong government – as offered by the popular Caesar – and the dangers of tyranny. The actions of Brutus, Cassius and their fellow conspirators have been seen, too, as a defence of democracy, as they seek to preserve the power of the Senate and prevent Caesar being awarded the crown for his military victories. Nelson Mandela, read the play during his many years of imprisonment on Robben Island and marked out his favourite passage, one which it is hard not to see gave him a sense of hope: ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come’.
And it is to Africa which Gregory Doran’s production looks for its inspiration. Some of the cast had first hand experience of the brutality of Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda, and the great spectacles and stirring rhetoric of the play’s public speeches was felt by the company to have a resonance with modern day African politicians, who, in their public discourses, demonstrate a much more expressive form of oratory than our tamed down, televisual soundbite political culture. But this is no concept driven reinterpretation of the play. Doran himself has spoken of his admiration for companies which work with the text in such a way, but he prefers to work out from the text, teasing out meaning as he works with a group of actors. As such, whilst the political is never far away, its real interest lies in the characters.
The play opens in a carnival atmosphere as the citizens await the return of their conquering hero, Julius Caesar. This is a modern African setting: a terrace of decaying concrete, with a central concrete tunnel, suggests a stadium (later lighting confirms this) whilst behind towers, menacingly, a statue of Caesar. Arrive early – the action had begun well before the start time. Citizens dance and rejoice to jubilant music – bass guitar, drums, trumpets and traditional instruments – underscored by that warm and beautiful sound of melodic African electric guitar playing. Others wave posters of Caesar, souvenir photographs are snapped, choirs sing and still others wave flags. Only sometimes is the action interrupted by the appearance of a Shaman or Soothsayer.
Caesar (Jeffery Kisson) himself enters – accompanied by his glamorous, beautiful, extravagantly dressed wife Calpurnia – but already we have a sense of a suspicious, arrogant and hubristic leader. Short and lacking real physical presence save his commanding voice, he refers to himself in the third person, almost as a mark of his own self- importance and inflated ego. Indeed, when he refuses the crown, it seems a carefully calculated act, confirmed later when we know why Caesar heads for the Capitol on what becomes his final date.
Yet if the play seems critical of Caesar, its real interest seems to be in the conflict between Antony and Brutus. Indeed, Ray Fearon understood the role of Antony perfectly, capturing a sense of Antony’s duplicity and the emotional complexity that the role demands. How genuine Antony is seems questionable. At times, his level of conscious play acting before the crowd rings hollow; yet at other moments, he appears a man of genuine passion and grief, most notably when he weeps over the body of Caesar, alone in the Capitol, in a performance marked by an almost searing sense of emotion.
It is, however, in the figure of Brutus, Caesar’s own adopted son, that the real tragedy of the play unfolds, and in a way that’s what I appreciated so much about this production: the way that it led me to grasp Brutus’ plight more than ever. Brutus, played convincingly by Paterson Joseph, begins the play almost the epitome of joyful innocence, revelling in the celebrations to mark Caesar’s return. But by the time he has been persuaded by the cynical Casca (a suitably biting Joseph Mydell) and the naive Cassius into joining the conspirators, already we have a sense of his demise. We sympathise greatly as he argues both with his wife and with his own conscience. Soon after the brutal and barbaric murder of Caesar – skilfully rendered in slow motion – we witness a suddenly threatening and disconcerting Brutus.
By Acts 4 and 5 – by when the concrete of the set has stared to deteriorate and a much darker atmosphere prevails – Brutus’ decline seems cemented. Mobs rule, burning victims with tyres doused in petrol, and the loss of his wife leaves Brutus even frailer. The end of Brutus and Cassius is particularly gruesome, played against the backdrop of the Battle of Philippi.
Like any production, the cynics can always find matters to quibble with – I’m no different – but this is a fine version of the play, and a great introduction to Shakespeare, and particularly the way his plays can be interpreted in so many different contexts. It was pleasing to see a sizeable audience, even at a matinee, and who can blame them? There’s some first rate theatre in Aylesbury, often at reasonable prices, in a stylish, even magnificent building, far grander than one might imagine for such a humble town.
Indeed, since opening less than two years ago, the £42 million landmark Waterside Theatre has already brought quite unexpected theatre to Aylesbury. Last year, if you got in quick, you could have had tickets to One Man Two Guvnors from the National Theatre. This week, I managed to catch Blue/ Orange – a fantastic new production of Joe Penhall’s controversial play – as it embarks on a national tour before a West End run.
Let’s hope there’s more of such great quality in the pipeline!
This production is now touring – details here.