Royal Shakespeare Theatre
22 July 2017
Dir: Angus Jackson
Cast: Andrew Woodall, James Corrigan, Alex Waldmann, Martin Hutson, Tom McCall, Ben Allen, Anthony Ofoegbu
The RSC’s production of Julius Caesar directed by Angus Jackson for the company’s 2017 Rome season seems to take an unusually neutral position with regard to the play’s traditional themes of power and the power of oratory. Ignoble though Caesar’s murder may be at the hands of assassins whose motivations appear to be not entirely ‘honourable’, Shakespeare nonetheless does leave the situation – at the point of the assassination anyway – somewhat neutral. The case for the killing of Caesar is there to be made; his ambitions to rule as dictator and Emperor could indeed rightly be judged dangerous to Rome and he may indeed have abused greatness in disjoining remorse from power, but what matters more than the truth is how skilled the opposing factions are in presenting their version of it.
That’s actually a good default position to start with in Julius Caesar then, as it places the audience in a similar position to the citizens of Rome. Everyone wants to know the truth, but in an age where one must be suspicious of political agendas being pushed, who can we trust to present us with an impartial version of events? Julius Caesar makes it clear that there is no objective truth and the truth isn’t what matters anyway. The reality is that it’s the PR team who can get the message out to the people and sway opinion that counts and thereby establishes the truth. If Mark Anthony had a battle bus, you can bet your life he’d have Caesar’s parting gift to the people plastered all over the side of it.
There are then all kinds of contemporary resonances to be found in Julius Caesar, and every year seems to make it more relevant. The programme for the RSC production indeed includes an article that references Donald Trump who has shown that the real battles are to be fought controlling the communications media, regardless of barely being able to string a coherent sentence together, he has proved to be the most effective orator of the Twitter age, presenting an ‘authoritative’ President’s version of what is true and what is ‘fake news’. It’s a little disappointing then to find that Angus Jackson plays a completely straight period Roman version of the play with no contemporary allusions or references, but it has to be said that the qualities of Shakespeare’s writing in Julius Caesar, the intent of its message and its relevance to today still come across powerfully.
More important than the period of the play however are its themes and how the key scenes and speeches are dealt with. A production can distinguish itself in how the director can make inferences and place an interpretation merely by adjustments of emphasis. There’s no doubting the effectiveness, the earnestness and the ruthlessness of this production’s lean and hungry Cassius (Martin Hutson) and his band of conspirators, nor is there any doubt about the bloodthirsty manner in which Caesar is dispatched here on the steps of the Capitol. After the speeches are made and positions taken however, there is less room for neutrality, and it’s by no means certain that Jackson’s production takes a convincing position on that.
While we are left in no doubt that Mark Anthony’s speech is an important factor in winning over public opinion, there’s less certainty in this production that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. Jackson’s production is one where the ultimate outcome is determined just as much by more overt aggressive masculine traits when it lets fly the dogs of war. It’s an extremely combative production with a macho power struggle developing between the raging headstrong Cassius and the determined inflexible Brutus. There’s an extraordinary display of aggression as the two seek to establish their alpha-male assertive and dominance, the two practically butting heads together.
That’s one way of looking at it. Another way would be to consider the fragile and fractious nature of power and the impact it can have on friendships and alliances. We come to understand far more about the nature and the relationship of Brutus and Cassius in Shakespeare’s play than we do about the historical truth of Julius Caesar’s reign and downfall. It’s not so much the power of the written or spoken word that proves to be critical here then, nor is it even a question of who wields the greatest might in the ensuing battle, it’s more to do with Cassius and Brutus proving to be too much the old-school warriors and unable to fully embrace the popular mood. In the changing times in Rome, it’s not macho posturing or battle plans that will win the day but the art of diplomacy. Not for the first time, in these days of Brexit negotiations and North Korean tensions, one wishes that a few more world leaders would recognise the important lessons hard learned in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
The RSC’s current Rome 2017 season includes new productions of Julius Caesar (until 9th Sept), Anthony and Cleopatra (until 7th Sept), Titus Andronicus (until the 2nd Sept) and the forthcoming Coriolanus (15th Sept – 14th Oct). The next live cinema broadcasts from the RSC will be Titus Andronicus on 8th Aug 2017 and Coriolanus on 11th Oct.