Sadly not constant as the Northern Star. Julius Caesar. Courtyard Theatre. May 16. Stratford upon Avon.

Being a self confessed Shakespeare geek currently denying all forms of treatment, I was naturally rather excited to be on my way to Julius Caesar. For one reason this was because of my own nerdishness: only a few plays left in the canon to see and this was one of them. Also I was looking forward to seeing the other half of the new ensemble.

In this group again there are a few of the old Histories crew (The ‘Tron Mafia’ mainly) including John Mackay. Also I was very excited about seeing Sam Troughton. This is a point which needs some explanation: I am mostly familiar with this young man from the BBC series Robin Hood. Now Robin Hood is an entertaining bit of Saturday evening fluff, with sneering villains, cheeky charming heroes and a surprisingly high calibre cast. One of its downsides is that I always end up finding Robin himself a mildly whiny nuisance. It is his long suffering sidekick Much who is my favourite- a loyal little chap who wears his heart on his sleeve. Much is played by Sam Troughton so when I got my mailing about the new RSC ensemble I excitedly texted my friends ‘Much is with the RSC!!’.

Troughton played Brutus in this production and he was indeed very very good. He conveyed the sense of troubled conscience of Brutus, suggesting clearly a man who is trying to relocate his moral compass, and indeed his emotional one as his wife appeals to him. There was a particularly fine moment as Portia (played boldly by Hannah Young) accuses Brutus of treating her like his mistress rather than a wife to which Brutus gave an impassioned ‘you are my true wife’ then crumpled to the floor in passionate tears. It was very moving, and conveyed something of the closeness of the couple and of Brutus’ wracked nerves. This was a powerful and muscular performance which I found very engaging. Hoorah for Sam Troughton!

Darrel D’Silva (whom I saw in The Rose Tattoo at the National about 2 year ago and was jolly good) played a burly, vigorous Mark Anthony. It was easy to imagine him as a seasoned soldier and man of war. This worked well in the legendary ‘friends, Roman, countrymen’ speech as he was able to play up the ‘I am just a blunt soldier’ bit and bring the fickle crowd on side.

The women in the play were also bold and feisty. Hannah Young as Portia was striking as was Noma Dumezweni as Calpurnia. They gave a refreshing impression of strong minded women in a largely male world.

Greg Hicks, who is I think a fine actor, played Julius. He was convincing as a warrior but less so as a despot and this left me a little confused as to whether the conspirators were right or merely acted out of malice- well Brutus definitely didn’t: but the others? Hmmm.

And this I think brings me to the production’s weakness. The direction felt a little ham-fisted. Was Caesar a tyrant or not? The other difficulty I found was all the gubbins (technical word there obviously- maybe visual and aural effects would be better) going on. The play opened with two men attacking each other: they were feral and stalked around like animals, and on the back of the stage was projected a giant statue of Romulus and Remus. So, I thought, here are the twins fighting it out amongst themselves. Ok, I get it, a nation born in bloodshed. This went on for quite a while as the audience sauntered in and after ten minutes frankly I was a bit bored by it. (Oh yes, look. They’re fighting again. One is bighting the other. Now they have stopped again. Oh dear and another bite…)

Throughout the play there were the sounds of crowd, projections of parts of Rome, of Rome in flames, (complete with sound effects) chariots, dead bodies. It all got a bit much. Used as I am to the theatre I can usually imagine large crowds and felt the extraneous stuff was all a bit unnecessary, underestimating the audience. I wanted to suspend my disbelief and wasn’t being allowed to. Clearly there was a directorial vision to this, and I understood what a lot of it was getting at; the brutality, violence, epic scale of Rome- but whereas some directors suggest an idea visually and allow you to soak it in I felt more like I was being bludgeoned to death by metaphors and imagery.

This is a shame as the other plays I have seen directed by Lucy Bailey I really enjoyed, and thought worked very well (Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus for your information) Something she does well is darkness and brutality, but it just felt a little overdone here. Now whilst this in some circumstances may not be a bad thing, here it felt as if the actors were competing with the effects. Several times I could not even hear what was being said over the white noise of crowds and crackle of fire. However as I saw the second night I hope these problems will be ironed out, as with a bit of tinkering the production could be very good indeed.

In the tradition of teacher’s feedback I shall finish by recapping on the good points:

The acting, the acting, the acting.


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