Theater Review – Julius Caesar, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Julius Caesar holds a special place in my heart. It was the first Shakespeare play I read, back in high school, and its many memorable lines ignited my love for Shakespeare’s language. I’ve been looking forward to seeing it at the Royal Shakespeare Company, as part of the current Rome season (together with Antony and Cleopatra), and the production I saw was wonderful. I saw a preview performance on March 16, and I can’t help but think that the RSC should have had a performance the day before – the Ides of March – but did not have one.

Julius Caesar is about politics, ambition, honor, and the consequences of taking radical actions. You’re probably aware that the title character doesn’t live to the end of the play; in some ways, this work could be entitled Marcus Brutus, but Caesar was certainly the more famous man.

The play opens in a stark, empty set, Roman with influences from Albert Speer, where there are some steps, columns, and lions toward the back of the stage. The RSC has gone full toga here; this is no modern dress production, transported to some setting where one needs to imagine how a modern Caesar would reflect the original. This is Rome, and the production embraces the antique. All the men wear identical togas; clean, crisp, white trimmed with scarlet.

Julius Caesar production images 2017 2017 Photo by Helen Maybanks  c RSC 214161

(Photos: Helen Maybanks for the RSC.)

Brutus is a well-respected Roman, and Cassius, played by the excellent Martin Hutson, starts suggesting that Rome would be better off without Caesar, who has just returned from a war with Pompey. In a show of humility, the Roman people – offstage – have offered Caesar the crown of emperor, but he refuses three times, only to accept.

Brutus, admirably played by Alex Waldmann, warms to the idea, and before long launches the conspiracy. The comings and goings of the conspirators build the tension, and their plans takes hold.

Earlier in the play, a soothsayer had warned Caesar to “Beware the ides of March,” and just before Caesar was due to go to the Senate, his wife, having dreamt of his death, tries to keep him home. But Caesar heads out on that fateful day.

The famous murder scene is one of the tensest scenes I’ve seen at the RSC. The combination of set and lighting make it a harsh murder, and, while there’s not a lot of blood, there’s enough so the killers can wash their hands in it, and stain their togas.

Julius Caesar production images 2017 2017 Photo by Helen Maybanks  c RSC 214266

After the intermission comes Mark Antony’s famous speech, which begins with “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” Standing on a small platform in the center of the stage, surrounded by a surprising number of Romans – most of the cast, plus what seems like a gaggle of extras – James Corrigan performs one of the best scenes I have ever seen at the RSC. He is impassioned and truculent, reminding that, “Brutus is an honorable man,” and he plays the crowd like a cheap fiddle.

The remainder of the play is less intense, as the men are seen at war, and Brutus and Cassius have a bit of a falling out. With the conspirators on one side, and Mark Antony and Octavius on the other, war is immanent, and the battle scenes are thrilling, the ending tragic, as several of the conspirators choose death in honor over death at the hands of their enemies.

Julius Caesar production images 2017 2017 Photo by Helen Maybanks  c RSC 214419

The triumvirate of Brutus, Cassius, and Mark Antony – respectively played by Alex Waldmann, Martin Hutson, and James Corrigan – make up a stellar cast for this production. I felt that Caesar, played by Andrew Woodall, was a bit too much of a loudmouth, spitting as he spoke, and r-r-r-olling his Rs, which may have been a way of marking him as somehow different from the others. The majority of the cast is made up of RSC first-timers, who all acquit their roles with ease and grace.

It’s hard not to see this play and think of politics, either in the US or the UK, with Trump on one side, Brexit on the other. But that’s the beauty of Julius Caesar; it holds a message for all time, to be interpreted according to the current political climate. But Angus Jackson’s production, staying purely in its Roman guise, takes no sides, allowing spectators to make their own transpositions, if they wish.

This was a beautiful production, with creative lighting, and, while there was just the single set in the first half, the set morphed a bit in the second part giving the stage a very different tone. The two key scenes in the middle of the play are among the best theater I’ve seen at the RSC, and the overall production is powerful. I hope to see this play again several times during its run.

The only negative was one brief moment near the end of the play that was so shocking that much of the audience gasped in surprise. This is something that is not in Shakespeare’s text, and that I feel should not be done on stage, but I will say no more so as not to spoil anything.

Julius Caesar has a long run at the RSC, through September, and you’ll be able to see it in cinemas in April. Don’t miss this.

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