I saw the RSC productions of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra back to back, matinee and evening, last week. I recommend the experience. Essentially, you are seeing the continuation of the same story in the evening and the whole event is no longer thansitting through all of Angels in America. The Roman Plays Season (including Coriolanus and Titus Andronicus) share one designer and take a collaborative look at these epic Shakespearean dramas. The thing they share so far is a clear awareness that human nature and politics have simply not changed in two millennia and that we can learn about the mistakes of the past to illuminate those of the present. Nothing is forced, but it is very easy to hear the echoes in these dramas of the politics being played out in today’s headlines and on your television news broadcasts every evening: the internecine struggles, the civil wars, the juggling for position and power; and there is even in this portrayal of Julius Caesar, an image of refugees fleeing across the stage from the Roman civil war and its devastation and cruelty. The wilful gambling, the polarized debates, the desire for power are all there – and the simple human failings, the hubris, the errors of judgment that can destroy.
I was very excited by my long day in Stratford and found that both plays are performed with a clarity and dramatic flair that are exemplary; and both are brilliantly directed, without any tricks of updating or other impositions. Visually the productions are also consistent and attractive, simple yet evocative of the grandeur that was Rome and the opulence that was Egypt.
Directing Julius Caesar, Angus Jackson displays a brilliant sense of stagecraft and movement; a deep understanding of the psychology of his characters; a sure sense of their body language and physical presentation of themselves; and he gets strong, believable and memorable performances from just about everyone in his cast. Andrew Woodall’s portrayal of Julius Caesar in his last days dominates as he should; he is the pivotal if not the central character and his re-appearance as a ghost confirms this sense of his centrality, reminds us why the play is named after him. He portrays confidently the charisma and the slightly terrifying power of personality that one would expect from a man who has just made himself Dictator for Life of Rome. Alex Waldmann is a confused, tormented, neurotic and, at times, even a self-deceiving Brutus, yet he is a sympathetic character torn between his love and admirations for Caesar and his belief that he must somehow save the Republic, even if it means betraying his own moral beliefs. He develops as a character throughout the play. James Corrigan as Antony gives a memorable performance of a playboy warrior, of a man shocked into having to rise to the events of his time. His cynicism is clearly delineated. He too seems to develop in political and military wiliness as the story progresses.
The funeral orations over the body of Julius Caesar are the central moments of the play, as they should be. Martin Hutson’s manipulative, impressively intellectual Cassius becomes a central tragic figure by the time he ends his own life, a man who perhaps should not have deferred to Brutus but should simply have led the assassination plot himself. Their difficulties with each other remind one of the internecine factional fighting in the Conservative and Labour parties of our own day. Hutson’s portrayal of political idealism informed by his own feelings of anger, humiliation by Caesar and ambition are a strong core to the proceedings.
The arguments between Brutus and Cassius about the rights and wrongs of both political and military decisions by Brutus that will have life changing impact on the world of Rome feel, as one watches this play proceed, like turning on the news every night at the moment. Without in any way forcing it, you spend most of the play thinking about today’s political issues as well as those of the Romans. The decline into Civil War and political expediency is forcefully handled and feels totally true, and the Octavian of Jon Tarcy is interpreted to hint at the ruthless, all-powerful, ambitious Emperor he will become. The cruelty that is portrayed during the Civil Wars is sometimes truly shocking.
I wish I could go through the entire, large cast and praise each person directly. Just take my word for it, that this is a clear, engaging and completely convincing production of Julius Caesar and that you simply should not miss it. There are many moments that clarify the text or interpret it in ways that seem startlingly apt. The acting is uniformly splendid, the interpretation is endlessly intelligent, the text is read and acted so that you can understand every word; this is a production full of relevant insights that can sometimes make you gasp, the spectacle is extremely well done . Angus Jackson’s approach to the play is immensely satisfying in every way.
The same can almost be said for Iqbal Khan’s dazzling production and sensitive interpretation of Antony and Cleopatra. In some ways this is a more expansive and difficult play; but once again this is an essentially direct and intellectually valid response to the text. There is a good deal of playfulness and humour throughout; and the opulent world of Egypt and the more austere and reasoning world of Rome are well contrasted. Robert Innes Hopkins has provided the perfect design for this play too; and Laura Mvula’s music is an added element of considerable interest. I have a few quibbles but they are no more than quibbles. I was not one hundred per cent happy with the casting of Antony Byrne as Mark Antony – he seemed to me to lack some of the vigorous sex appeal of an Antony, some of the lingering youthful narcissism; but he was convincing as the great warrior just past his prime, he was the tired and aging military hero; his acting was secure; and his last moments as he is hauled up to Cleopatra in the monument were extremely moving. His confrontations with Octavius Caesar were compellingly played. And it was completely convincing that he would try the politically expedient marriage to Octavia but be unable to keep it up because of his obsessive love for Cleopatra.
What a pleasure it was to see the Julius Caesar from the matinee, Andrew Woodall, as Enobarbus! He portrayed this very different character not only convincingly but with such total ease and conviction that you almost had to check the programme to be sure this was the same actor; and James Corrigan was as strong and memorable in the less showy role of Agrippa as he had been as an exceedingly attractive Mark Antony. It is one of the great pleasures of going to plays in Stratford that one encounters an ensemble of this professionalism and talent crossing from one role to another in different plays.
But, as praiseworthy as just about every one of the men was, in this production I especially found myself interested in the women. Amber James and Kristin Atherton made their marks strongly as Charmian and Iras; Lucy Phelps was impressive and believably aristocratic as Octavia.
Above all, Josette Simon was a special and exceptionally moving Cleopatra. She was seriously able to portray the character and allure of this woman whom age cannot wither nor custom stale. She was full of wit and humour as well as pathos and charm throughout; she was sexually provocative; she was astonishingly attractive; she was full of surprises. Simon’s performance was intelligently graded from the opening scenes when she is cavorting wilfully with Antony, through her rage and pain when he marries Octavia; through her panic and despair as her defeat looms. Always, underneath, you glimpse the crafty, manipulative Queen of Egypt. In the last scenes of the play, as she moves inexorably towards the trap from which the only exit is suicide, Josette Simon is also increasingly regal, truly the queen. Her crown and robes and immortal longings become one.
This is a masterpiece of a performance, strong, unusual, skittish, deep. It would be worth attending this production if only to see her Cleopatra. But there is so much more to see. Ben Allen’s Octavius, Patrick Drury’s Lepidus and David Burnett’s Pompey are only three among other outstanding performances. The play is long but even as Cleopatra was reaching her end, I almost did not want the play itself to finish.
Iqbal Khan and Angus Jackson have collaborated with a talented team to give us theatrical experiences of the kind one is always hoping for when one goes to the theatre. These nuanced, intelligent, straightforward, often surprising and utterly moving productions should not be missed if you can help it.