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June 25, 2012

Julius Caesar (RSC/Illuminations) @ BBC4

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I've not yet had a chance to see the RSC's new production of Julius Caesar, directed by Gregory Doran and currently playing in Stratford. The concept behind the production is fascinating, if not without its problems - an all-black British cast, performing the play as set in an unnamed modern African state. In a year characterised by the welcoming of other nations to the UK with their own versions of Shakespeare, I have my reservations about a British company "doing" Africa, particularly in a form that elides continental difference with a range of aspects. These are reservations rather than deep-rooted complaints, but worth flagging.

The design of this televised version on BBC4 was fascinating. Rather than film the stage play from live performance, the extraordinary digital theatre company Illuminations (who have previously worked with the RSC on a range of productions, including Doran's own Hamlet) began in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on the thrust stage, but then moved to a range of interior locations. In a rundown world of brick corridors, flamelit rooms and clay earth floors, a sense of claustrophobic heat was created that stoked a growing sense of pressure as the film moved towards its inevitable mid-point climax. The decision to create a version of a production geared specifically for film alongside - rather than subsequent to - the theatrical production is an innovative one, finding a fascinatingly different medium for the story that gave greater priority to the environment of the play and to the psychologising of characters.

What the locations did lack was a sense of the bustle of the city. An opening carnival began the production in vibrant mood, with revellers (bolstered by a crowd of extras) singing and dancing in praise of Caesar, evoking African carnivals. The fullness of this section, set on a live stage surrounded by a typical RSC audience, allowed noise and colour to dominate from the start, creating a volatile and dangerous world in which revelers and police could talk back to one another and a spirit of celebration could barely be contained. Moving to the 'real' locations, the mood changed significantly. Large spaces dwarved the actors, who increasingly appeared in relative isolation, whispering in echoing chambers or losing themselves down winding back corridors.

This lost something in an impression of a busy public world; the conspirators needed little extra room in order to whisper conspiratorially, and the danger of being overheard was non-existent. In this sparsely populated world, the conspirators lacked pressure. This was most notable in the staging of the assassination, performed on a pair of escalators in what appeared to be a deserted palace. Rome itself appeared to be dead already, and its rulers acting out the dying breaths of an empire. What we gained, in this scene in particular, was something far bloodier than possible onstage - the noises of the daggers plunging into Caesar's body were unpleasantly fleshy.

The camerawork was strongest, instead, in the extreme close-ups, particularly in the lingering focus on the face of Patterson Joseph's Brutus. Particularly as Brutus moved around his open-plan home, waiting for the conspirators to arrive and reading the parchments that had been passed into the house, he whispered his words to himself, internalising his conflict and working through his self-justification with direct reference to the camera, his confidante. This allowed the viewer a route into an otherwise calculating Brutus, who in public scenes disappeared behind his own persona, and presented a cold, immovable front among the other conspirators, including the passionate Cassius (Cyril Nri). Even moments of apparent exterior engagement could be made personal; Caesar's ghost appeared as a reflection in his lamp, allowing the production to maintain ambiguity over the extent to which the ghost was real or simply a manifestation of Brutus' guilt.

Similarly, the appearance of Ray Fearon's Antony after the assassination was emphasised as a turning point; appearing silhouetted and blurred, he slowly emerged into focus and an ominous underscore of music (a rare use of non-diegetic sound) accompanied his unspoken (but heard by the audience) misgivings as he appraoched the scene. Fearon, however, utilised the full dynamic range offered by the camera. Leaning over Caesar's body, abandoned on the escalator, his voice rose to a roar as he faced up into an overhead light.

The action returned to the RST stage for the orations scene, where again the use of extras in a much more confined space created an energy that elevated the performances. Fearon choreographed the crowd masterfully, screaming for attention over the chaotic shouting and whipping the crowd into a fervour. It was in this scene, particularly, that the setting lent itself well to the play; without the veneer of Roman civility, Doran was able to present more clearly the cross-purpose shouting, the unbridled energy of the mob that Antony needed to direct rather than create, and the emotional outpouring that accompanied the unveiling of Caesar's body.

In another stylistic shift, the beginnings of the war were imagined as gang violence, partially recorded on camera phones in an instance of 'happy slapping'. Cinna the Poet was bound in a tyre, doused in petrol and set on fire; while Octavius and Antony's prisoners were bagged and shot in the head as the newly formed triumvirate haggled over lives. Again, there was a problem in that these scenes - moving away from the lively noise of the stage - were simply quieter, and the murder of Cinna happened too calmly to keep up the momentum of the riled crowd. Far better was the emotional argument between Cassius and Brutus in the latter's tent, particularly as Cassius raised his robe and demanded Brutus kill him, to Brutus's shock and disgust. These scenes of intimacy were the production's strength throughout, including in the early meeting of the lead conspirators with Joseph Mydell's Casca in a men's washroom, where the older man lingered over his insinuations and innuendos as he washed his hands and looked pointedly at Brutus and Cassius in turn.

The closing scenes saw the war played out in small encounters in stairwells, corridors and dead ends, and again a relative lack of ambient noise meant that it was hard to get a sense of a full scale war taking place. In the close-ups of deaths, of Antony and Octavius (Ivanno Jeremiah) walking down corridors already bristling with tension, and in the tears of Brutus as he looked down at his dead soldiers, the medium succeeded rather at evoking the personal struggle of war.

For the closing moment, the final rally of the people, Antony emerged one last time onto the main RST stage. What came clear throughout this film is that, perhaps oddly, it was the more limited environment of the live theatrical production that best evoked the clamour, noise and heat of the charged African political setting. In the push to realise it more literally, the play became far more of a psychological drama at the expense of a sense of the larger picture. Nonetheless, it's a fantastic experiment and one I hope the RSC repeats in future years; to create something specifically geared to film that complements a theatrical production is a bold endeavour that respects the advantages and possibilities of the different media, and provided a fascinating platform for a worthwhile production.

June 22, 2010

Me and Orson Welles

This film comes as something of a holiday having recently written a performance history of Julius Caesar for the RSC Shakespeare single edition. Telling the story of Orson Welles's seminal production of the play at New York's Mercury Theatre in 1937 from the point of view of the actor playing Lucius, it's a lovely slice of theatre life in pre-War New York.

Me and Orson Welles

Christian McKay (Orson Welles) and Zac Efron (Richard Samuels)

It's also incredibly insightful about the production's role in the history of the play. The first scene at the Mercury sees the actors fighting over Welles' ruthless cutting of the text, including George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) complaining about the streamlining of Antony's role, hitherto considered the dramatic core of the play - not strictly true in terms of the play's entire history, but spot-on in terms of early 20th century trends. Another subplot concerns the role of Cinna the Poet, played by Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), and the dispute between actor and director over the importance of the role. In the shadow of war which pervades the film, the significance of this role gradually becomes more apparent - and, of course, one of the most important things about this production was its role in reintegrating the scene as essential to the play. In the final performance, it becomes the single most impactful moment of the play.

As a backstage drama of the trials and practicalities of putting on a play, this was surprisingly gritty and really captivating. As a main plot, of a young boy's introduction into a grown-up world he's not ready for, it rather reminded me of An Education. Pleasingly, considering Efron is something of a Disney poster-boy, his horrifically naive accusations of "immoral" behaviour in Welles, and his complaints against being treated "unfairly", didn't result in overdue self-discoveries and a change in behaviours; instead, it led to him being unceremoniously dumped from the company and the adult life and sent back to school. There was no place in this very practical world for drippy idealism.

So, surprisingly good film and fascinating recreation of a seminal production. Catch it if you can!

November 21, 2009

Roman Tragedies (Toneelgroep Amsterdam) @ The Barbican

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A six hour version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra stitched together. With no interval. In promenade. In Dutch with surtitles. It's been a while since I've subjected myself to a Shakespearean endurance test (The Histories), and this was the kind of hardcore event which doesn't come around very often. Happily, Toneelgroep Amsterdam's first visit to the UK in ten years was one to be enjoyed rather than endured, an intelligent and exciting reworking of these three plays that forced one to confront our changing attitudes to the stories that matter.

It's a rather difficult event to review, as everyone who went would have had an entirely different experience. For the majority of the afternoon/evening, audience members were invited to wander freely around the auditorium and onto the stage, watching the action from any number of vantage points. Thus, while it was possible to watch the production 'normally' from the auditorium, most of us spent long periods promenading among the actors.

The stage and set-up require some explanation. These were the corridors of power, like the back rooms at the UN. Comfortable sofas, pot plants and coffee tables were complemented by coffee bars, a running buffet, an internet cafe and newspaper stands, among which both cast and audience spent their evenings. We were actively encouraged to check our e-mail, to grab a paper, to sit down with a meal or a glass of wine; there were no breaks among which we might do so communally, and events were continuous apart from short breaks for scene changes. We were not expected to 'watch' everything that happened; rather, we were encouraged to take control over our own experience, to choose what we wanted to watch.

Almost all of the action was filmed by a variety of fixed and mobile cameras, the political events being edited live for TV. Some reports were delivered by 'anchors' from a newsdesk at the back of the stage, others were staged for television such as a live debate between Coriolanus, Menenius and the Tribunes, or Brutus and Antony's orations, while other action was caught on handhold cameras with the characters apparently unaware. This filmed footage was screened both above the stage for those in the auditorium (essential on a deep stage with many compartmentalised seating areas, where the action wasn't always visible), and onto a number of televisions grouped around the stage. It was thus possible to select a sofa and essentially sit watching television for the evening, enjoying politics as mediated by the television cameras.

The result of all this was to recast the events of ancient Rome as modern day news events, with the audience placing a similar kind of value on them. While many of the audience deliberately ensured they made their way back to the auditorium for the 'live' experience of Brutus and Antony's addresses to the people, for example, I caught the whole thing on television. In the corner of my eye, meanwhile, another screen showed clips of Barack Obama giving speeches, instantly recasting what I was watching as a worldwide broadcast, an intensely intimate, yet live, television event that communicated personally what was experienced massively by the audience in the auditorium.

The cameras were used to great effect throughout, highlighting tiny details that could not have been communicated without them: the intense eyes of Coriolanus as he hid his face from his mother; the frozen scream of Cleopatra as she prepared to send word of her death to Antony; the hidden expressions of Portia as she buried her face in her pillow. The cast were liberated to perform in a variety of keys; both grandstanding performances to the seated audience, and 'private' moments that the camera took responsibility for distributing. It also allowed for more virtuoso effects: the ghost of Caesar, for example, was superimposed only on the broadcast picture, with the live Brutus talking to an empty chair; and Enobarbus' flight from his own guilt took him out of the Barbican and into the car-park, where his screams caused some consternation to the catering staff on a cigarette break, the whole thing captured on the roving camera and relayed back to the auditorium.

The production was insistent on displaying to us history in its many and varied forms, in keeping with the idea of this history as a real and living one, rather than one author's idea of the past. Thus, while Shakespeare's action shaped the body of the plot, a ticker-tape reel countered the stage story with running commentary on the 'real' history, with dates of battles and deaths, explanations of the political shifts and roles of various officials, and further details that Shakespeare ignored in the plays. As the play ended, a long list of questions: "Is the ideal of democracy worth the sacrifice of an individual?" "Can tyranny be justified?" etc. scrolled across the screen, asking us to consider history as a battle of ideologies. Other screens displayed relevant newsreels throughout, whether accompanying the campaign against Aufidius with footage of the Afghan war or displaying the Olympics while Caesar's Rome celebrated the Lupercal, imagining history as a series of events endlessly repeated. To complicate matters even further, the news ticker also displayed information such as "150 minutes until Julius Caesar's death" for the key characters, emphasising the inevitability of history: the interest here was not in what happens, but in how we get there.

In director Ivo van Hove's Rome, history became something that was created privately and domestically rather than publicly. All scenes which gave the masses a voice were cut, and increasingly the focus of events was narrowed and humanised. Thus, Coriolanus was fragmented and heavily cut. The Tribunes emerged from the audience, speaking ostensibly on our behalf though far more obviously for themselves. The longest, core scene was performed as a press conference, with a chafing Coriolanus (Fedja van Huet) soothed by Menenius at one end of the table and attacked by Sicinius and Brutus at the other for disrespect to the people. In between the two groups sat Cominius and a Senator, attempting to maintain order over the physical fights which continually erupted, the overturned chairs and angry threats of an impassioned political debate that resulted, ultimately, in Coriolanus' banishment. These public scenes were contrasted with the dominant Fried Pittoors as Volumnia, who held state in a raised seated section from which she rarely moved. To her, in this private setting, flocked senators, rulers and her son, and it was in her presence that the real decisions were made. Pittoors' commanding presence made her plea to Coriolanus, a fixed bow from the waist from which she refused to raise herself, all the more compelling. van Huet's performance, meanwhile, turned the story of Coriolanus into one of a reluctant public figure, a hero forced to play a game he does not understand and with which he bore no patience. As he agonised over his decision to sack Rome, the cameras captured a haunted, confused gaze which spoke of a man completely lost.

Julius Caesar, for my money the best part of the production, gave a fuller text which happily trimmed the final scenes mercilessly, turning the play into a lean and thrilling descent into chaos. The only real public scene here was one of the production's highlights; Brutus first addressing the audience from a podium in a commanding performance, before Antony's far more informal engagement. An accident had confined actor Hans Kesting to a wheelchair, but this only made him the more compelling: as he rolled around the stage with surprising speed and agility, Antony's apparent disability only belied the danger he posed. Rolling around to the front of a podium he could not see over, and forcing the fixed state camera to yield to a handheld, unmediated broadcast, Antony addressed himself to the camera as much as the crowd, pulling out an image of Caesar and scrawling over it with red pen as he described the wounds. As he spoke, the conspirators who stood in a line behind him slowly sidled away and made their exit, whispering in a corner until an enraged Antony wheeled and made a beeline straight for Brutus, onto whom he launched himself in an attempt to throttle the murderer. In the absence of a performed crowd for Antony to play to, Kesting conveyed the power of revolution in words that demonstrated the power of the camera to turn a close-up into a seismic shift in world order.

Several characters were recast as female, as part of van Hove's mission to turn the events into a relatively realistic reflection of contemporary politics. Octavius and Cassius were both women, and this made for a fascinating dynamic between Renee Fokker's Cassius and Roeland Fernhout's Brutus. Cassius here became a powerful yet frustrated politician, unable to enact events on her own terms and reliant on Brutus for the necessary support to carry through her actions. Fernhout's reflective Brutus was matched for power by her sheer determination, and the two of them were intimidating when together, and terrifying when opposed. As the two of them quarrelled in a dim office, late at night, Brutus was here rendered far from stoic; a tired and emotional man with the weight of the world on his shoulders who screamed defiance at Cassius' questioning of his commands. The relative equality of the two was revealed in an almost tender farewell as the two parted for the last time.

Antony and Cleopatra cranked up the intensity and domesticity a further notch, with a comparatively full text that ran to two and a half hours by itself. Split into two halves, and with the audience forced to return to the auditorium for the second half, this was the part of the play that we were required to watch, to experience as a unified group without the distractions offered on stage. For this world, presided over by Chris Nietvelt's Cleopatra and Marieke Heebink's highly-sexualised Charmian, politics moved into the bedroom. Charmian ran Cleopatra's court with a disturbing combination of seduction (especially of other women) and devil-may-care pragmatism; as they waited for Octavius to arrive, she marched for a champagne bottle as if it was a necessary weapon. Hadewych Minis's Octavius offered a stark contrast, her white shirt and tie belying a puritanical and sparse personality that accepted events with a sense of inevitably and necessity. Upon giving away Octavia, she kissed her sister tenderly, then with increased passion. This one moment of emotional urgency was instantly cut into by Charmian's distant cries for "Music!" before, to the eruption of the Red Hot Chili Peppers onto the video screens, the scene cut to a wild orgy in Egypt as Cleopatra and her ladies thrashed about on the floor to the loud rock tunes.

The final scenes, captured closely by the cameras, were played out in full as Cleopatra and her ladies followed the deaths of Antony and prepared themselves for the inevitable. Centrally in the stage was an area into which, almost superstitiously, audience members were instructed not to go. Between two glass screens stood an empty space which symbolised death; every time a character was murdered or committed suicide, they moved to that space and lay down on a trolley, and an overhead snapshot of their 'body' was taken and displayed, frozen, on the video screens. As this space increasingly became the focus, the characters were uncontrollably drawn to it, surrounding Antony's body which lay splayed out. As the space became laden with bodies, Octavia sent first aid teams to resuscitate the fallen, but to no avail. The history of Rome, with all its scale and worldwide ramificaitons, ultimately ended up figured in the four dead bodies that filled this empty space.

History was too big for this production, just as the production was too big for this review. This was, perhaps, the production's greatest strength - its recognition that history is best realised through the all-too-human stories of individuals, through the representative rather than the comprehensive. In this, the production was possibly the most Shakespearean history I've yet seen. There's far more that could have been discussed: the wonderful chaotic drumming that stood for the various wars; the hysterically floozy Casca; the tenderness of the mirrored Caesar/Calphurnia and Brutus/Portia scenes; the homely picture of Antony lying across Octavia's lap and her disgraced return to Rome; the traumatic effect that Coriolanus' final fall had on Aufidius. Perhaps it's enough to say that this was the only production this year to which I've yet given a standing ovation. A beautifully performed, expertly produced and deeply provoking reading of the Roman histories which really demands repeat experiences.

June 12, 2009

Julius Caesar (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

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I've seen a wide variety of techniques used to conjure up the crowd who act as onstage witnesses to the orations that form the climactic set piece of Julius Caesar. Sometimes actors have moved among the audience, implicitly bolstering their numbers with the seated masses. At other times, offstage shouting has been used to enhance the noise and chaos of the listeners. Lucy Bailey's new production for the RSC, however, was the first time I've ever seen CGI utilised on a stage to create a crowd. On back video screens, life-size human figures were shown moving as a mass, shouting and raising their arms, responding noisily to the words of Brutus and Antony, while real actors moved through gaps in the screens, providing some real life accompaniment for the screen audience. It was a spectacular failure for several reasons: the video crowd failed to respond in believable synchronicity with the orations; the on-stage actors were anchored to the movements of their digital counterparts; and it was incredibly distracting, introducing a layer of artifice which competed unhelpfully for attention with the on-stage action.

The projection was symptomatic of a production that suffered primarily from over-direction and over-design, a surplus of ideas that combined to make a whole that was messy and ultimately unsatisfactory. This was a particular shame as so many of the individual ideas and performances were absolutely fine; unlike the Globe's As You Like It, this was a production that was less than the sum of its parts.

In an interesting beginning, Tunji Kassim and Joseph Arkley circled each other half-naked, snarling ferally and grappling under a projected image of the famous Romulus and Remus statue. Eventually, Romulus tore with his teeth at his brother's neck, killing him in a mess of blood, before howling and leaving the stage. Bailey's Rome was thus rooted in its primal and barbaric origins, the implication being that the act of the conspirators was no less savage and bloody for the veneer of civilisation that obscured it. Greg Hicks' Caesar was visually linked back to the wild past by wearing furs and military brass instead of the more customary togas, locating him as a man of war and violence rather than a politician, part of the violent founding lineage of the nation.

Against this pagan mythology, Sam Troughton's Brutus at first cut a somewhat messianic figure, standing in white robes among his black-robed fellow conspirators. If this was Jesus, though, Troughton's staring eyes and passive-aggressive attitude towards Cassius made him a conflicted one, a man whose essentially decent morals clashed with an ingrained suspicion and cynicism. It became clear, in fact, that another white-robed icon made a far more compelling parallel - T.E. Lawrence. As Brutus read the petitions that Cassius had flung through his window, the beginnings of a mania crossed his face. Brutus became consumed by an obsession, a concern with his own legend and ability to influence the course of events. It was in the doing, rather than the consequences, that Brutus found his justification, a sense of basic rightness unfettered by objective moral constraints. Killing Caesar became "right", and Brutus' ability to comprehend his own actions increasingly compromised.

It was a role that Troughton grew into during the course of the production, which was a relief after a very shaky start. The first conversation between Brutus and John Mackay's Cassius was a bloodless, lifeless and deathly dull scene, during which the two actors circled each other with what seemed to be a fundamental disinterest in the matters of which they spoke. I was particularly surprised in the case of Mackay, normally such a wonderful performer, that his Cassius was underplayed to the point of making the character almost obsolete. When emotion came through, such as in his bitter "And this man/ Is now become a god", a hint of the complexity that drives the character was tantalisingly seen, but rarely followed through. However, Mackay too improved as the production went on, and 4.2 saw him angry and frustrated at Brutus' increasingly detached and arrogant manner.

The manic bent of this Brutus saw his relationships with others compromised too; Brutus' concern was Brutus. In this sense, Troughton's performance slightly unbalanced the production, allowing a fascinating reading of the character but at the expense of others. Tunji Kasim's Lucius, for example, was denied the closeness to Brutus that often strengthens the former and humanises the latter; here, Brutus peered at his sleeping servant with curiosity, as if remembering the emotional attachments that had defined him before his decision to turn conspirator. Hannah Young as Portia gave a gutsy and determined performance, using force to make Brutus pay attention to her, culminating in the revealing of the ugly scar up her thigh, the only thing that eventually drew Brutus' full focus. These scenes all contributed to the development of Brutus, but bordered perilously closely on making the other characters mere foils for him.

Good work was done in individualising the conspirators, with some striking performances making this a rare production in which the individual personalities of the murderers could be distinguished. Paul Hamilton's wounded and warlike Caius Ligarius moved on a crutch, a disabled but still formidable ally; Brian Doherty's Decius Brutus brought an intelligent wit and influential tongue to his key scene with Caesar, while Gruffudd Glyn's Cinna was youthful and enthusiastic, engaging with a committment almost equal to Brutus' own. In a standout performance, though, Oliver Ryan made for a tremendous Casca. With an oily voice and fixed sneer, Ryan's performance moved away from the humour usually associated with the character to a dissatisfied sarcasm, his tone speaking of his disgust at Caesar's honours. It was one of those rare performances which let you see a relatively minor character afresh, a true eye-opener.

Darrell D'Silva's performance was dismissed by some critics as reducing Mark Antony to a drunken lout, which does a great disservice to the performance I saw. In his earliest appearances, during the bacchanals, Antony was naturally ebullient and half-dressed, throwing up in a corner after a heavy night. Yet this seems to me to be entirely in keeping with what the play calls for; and when Antony joined the conspirators after Caesar's murder, this was no lout but a furious and powerful political animal called into being. D'Silva's handling of the orations, despite the distractions of the CGI crowd, was masterfully executed, building his rhetoric to a thunderous conclusion. "Friends, Romans..." was a cry for attention from which his speech grew in strength and structure. It was testament to the apparent sincerity of his 'spontaneous' delivery that he received a laugh from the audience on "Now let it work", as if his true intention had been concealed up until that point.

Greg Hicks made for a strong Caesar, if an arrogant. His treatment of the conspirators in the senate spoke of his ambition, pushing Metellus down as he spoke of spurning his request. Yet there was much human in this Caesar as well, as shown by a neatly played domestic scene with Calphurnia. The two engaged in an amusing battle of wills, which saw Caesar playfully belittling her in front of Decius Brutus to her embarrassment, and as Decius gave his alternative reading of Calphurnia's dream, Caesar teasingly mocked her. His murder was violent and bloody, and Hicks admirably refused to try and dignify it. "Et tu, Brute?" was a cry of mocking derision, arms thrown up in defiance of the conspirators, and he died in a pile of twitches at the foot of the podium from which he had delivered his pronouncements.

While there was much to enjoy in the first half, the ensemble failed to convincingly negotiate the confused wars of the second. The soldiers of the opposing armies were drawn directly from Julie Taymor's Titus, muddied and marching in stylised unison (and wearing ridiculous full body tights with caked mud on under their armour, which meant the actors' torsos looked like they were creasing) and the burgeoning Triumvirate failed to make an impression of any sort. Caesar's Ghost was escorted on by a bizarre, ghostly Calphurnia, presumably in some echo of the pagan Soothsayer and his female acolyte, but with no particular sense. The connections to Romulus and Remus were laid on with a trowel as the fight scenes lost their weapons and resorted to hand-to-hand brawling. Finally, as Strato held out his sword for Brutus, Caesar re-entered, swung a sword and slew Brutus himself. Caesar as a play tends to lose momentum once war breaks out, but instead of trying to make sense of it, there were too many ideas thrown into the mix, rendering the final scenes a confused mess that kept Brutus at its centre, but allowed all else to fall into chaos. In the final moments, as the new Triumvirate left the stage, soldiers around them spontaneously died, falling to the ground. It was one final incoherent moment in a production that suffered from trying to do too much, and ultimately ended up spoiling its own effect.

February 19, 2009

Julius Caesar (SATTF) @ The Tobacco Factory

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A bizarre clash of three Shakespearean press nights will hopefully not have left the new Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production of Julius Caesar out in the cold. While the RSC's Tempest and Northern Broadsides' Othello drew the bulk of media interest, I took the road less travelled to Bristol last night for the opening of the SATTF's tenth anniversary season of Roman plays, directed by Artistic Director Andrew Hilton.

The key strength of the Tobacco Factory as a venue is its in-the-round intimacy, and Caesar benefitted hugely from being performed in extreme close-up, the conspirators in particular communicating silently with their eyes as they took their positions around Caesar. Played in full Jacobean costume, the hats and cloaks irresistably evoked Guy Fawkes and the early modern police state, the plotters choosing their words carefully and quietly as if the walls themselves were listening. Played this way, the first half of the play became filled with suspense, the oppressive dark and low ceiling weighing down on the conspirators as their basement-hatched plans gathered momentum until they were finally and bloodily fulfilled in the sun-drenched Capitol.

Heading the plotters were Leo Wringer's Brutus and Clive Hayward's Cassius, both expertly performed. Their increasingly co-dependent relationship formed the heart of this production, building in layers of unspoken detail. Wringer's Brutus was particularly interesting, already half-turned before his first conversation with Cassius. While loudly speaking of his loyalty to Caesar, he urged Cassius to continue talking, provoking him when he paused through his spoken fears of the crowd urging Caesar to be king. Cassius' importance was in being the talker, the one member of this guarded society unafraid to speak plainly of his dissatisfaction. In many ways, Cassius was the least intelligent of the party; a doer rather than a thinker, he was the motivating force that pulled the dissidents together yet was entirely dependent on Brutus for public justification and leadership. Brutus, on the other hand, was reliant on Cassius' drive; by himself he was reflective and relatively static, lost in the thoughts of guilt and loss that increasingly plagued him.

Their relationship was encapsulated in a mesmerising and emotionally devastating 'tent' scene (4.2) which was a joy to watch. Brutus relentlessly persecuted his friend, their argument an upsetting shock to Cassius, whose terror at the concept of a division between them was realised in retaliatory anger. Yet as they reconciled, and Brutus revealed the news of Portia's death, Cassius' grief for his friend's loss - and frustration at himself for not having realised the cause of Brutus' aggressiveness - overwhelmed him. He had no concept of how to comfort Brutus, taking a step towards him as if to hug him but realising immediately that it would be inappropriate. Shortly after, as Messala gave Brutus the official report of Portia's death, Cassius sat amazed as Brutus presented himself as stoic before his men, marvelling at the ability of the man to put aside personal matters for the greater cause. Cassius left the tent, inspired and moved by his friend, and their leave-taking screamed of pain beneath the formality of their words. The importance and strength of their relationship was further underlined by the sudden intrusion into their conversation of a drunken Caska, in place of the Poet, who was dealing with his problems in his own destructive way. The quick removal of their one-time co-conspirator showed how far the original plotters had fallen apart - and how inseparable the two leaders had remained.

This relationship was echoed in the rather more troubled partnership of Alun Raglan's Mark Antony and Byron Mondahl's Octavius Caesar. Raglan made for an awe-inspiring Antony (if he continues in the role for the Tobacco Factory's Antony next month, it'll definitely be one to watch). Dishevelled and roguish in his early appearances next to Caesar's other pristine followers, Antony was immediately identified as a danger, an unpredictable element within this formal world. Even when in full uniform with purple sash, his movements were comfortable and easy, the sign of a man utterly confident in himself. Yet this apparently easy-going nature belied a calculating and shocking rage that first poured out when left alone with Caesar's body, his voice rising to a roar as he cried "Havoc!" Yet, following the emotional and seemingly heartfelt orations, he stood quietly on stage and murmured "Now let it work" in a tone that left no doubt that he was congratulating himself on an utterly successful performance. His coolness was further noted as he literally shrugged off Lepidus' demands for the life of his nephew, careless of his relative's life. In this meeting, the triumvirate gathered around a long table, the tension between himself and Octavius was already apparent, as he mocked Octavius' youth and gazed around, openly bored, as Octavius spoke. This Octavius, not that much younger than Antony despite the repeated references to his youth, was a politician, a commander rather than a soldier, who looked uncomfortable in uniform. His arrogance and supreme confidence matched Antony's, and it was clear that Octavius fully expected the rule. By the final scene, his orders ("All that served Brutus, I will entertain them") evoked Julius Caesar's own assumptions of monarchical power, and he marched off stage with a final summons to Antony to "let's away/ To part the glories of this happy day". As he marched off, Antony stood quietly on stage, before motioning to his followers and marching off in the opposite direction. We were left aching for the next installment of their feud.

The intimacy of the production also assisted, rather than restricted, the crowd scenes. The orations scene was particularly excellent; Brutus and Antony spoke from a spotlit perch in the audience's tiered seating, while the rest of the company filled out the playing space as the mob. The tiny space was packed with screaming people, perfectly capturing the restlessness and anger in the people. Their anger was such that both Antony and Brutus had to fight to be heard - it's a brave production that can sacrifice "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" as Antony struggled to catch his audience's attention. The crowd were perfectly influenced by the two speakers, and Antony in particular gave a masterclass in swaying opponents by presenting himself as choked by emotion. His iterations of "Brutus is an honourable man" became increasingly filled with bitterness as the 'injustice' of the murder overwhelmed him.

The production's two women were both strong, and unusually modern in their performance style. Dani McCallum's Portia was notable for the equality of her relationship with Brutus, folding her arms stubbornly instead of going to bed and hitching up her skirts to display the gash on her thigh. Her anger with her husband was untempered by love, she instead giving full vent to her frustration at her husband shutting her out. Catherine McKinnon was more demure as Calphurnia, pleading rather than demanding her husband to stay at home. As Decius Brutus persuaded Caesar to the senate, she simply bowed her head, the happy smile vanishing as she realised her premonitions could not be avoided.

At the centre of the production's first half stood Simon Armstrong's hearty Caesar. Until his assassination he wore little more ostentation than the other nobles, his authority residing in his way with people rather than in trappings. Commanding and immovable, this Caesar was a military leader; not a bad man, but a presence difficult to resist. The fears of the conspirators could be understood, yet there was no obvious cause for the extent of the crime, the only moment of apparent cruelty coming in his refusal to repeal the banishment of Metellus' brother. At the time of the murder, Caesar had seated himself in a throne and was wearing long robes, allowing the conspirators to bow before him; he had become what they feared. The assassination itself came in a moment of extreme violence, the conspirators surrounding him and stabbing him repeatedly. In his final moments, though, he saw Brutus' face and bared a space on his breast to receive Brutus' sword, accepting his fate in a final moment of connection with the man he loved.

There were plenty of other fascinating moments across the production. Artemidorus was conflated with Cinna the Poet, allowing extra build-up to the moment when he was murdered by the mob. The moment acquired especial poignancy as the man who had tried to prevent the murder was killed as a conspirator by an ignorant crowd. As he told his persecutors he was a friend, they even began to move on, but his innocence led him to continue answering their questions and the mob, hungry for violence, returned and beat him mercilessly to his death. There was good work from the rest of the company too, with no particularly weak links - even the young boy playing Lucius became sympathetic in his awkwardness as Brutus laid him down to sleep as the guitar he was playing slipped from his hands.

The production will be followed by Antony at the end of its run, and playing Caesar as the first half of a bigger story worked marvellously in the production's favour, the subtle private conspiracy of the first half leading to the increasingly fast and inevitably disastrous public battles of the second. By Brutus' suicide, the world established in the opening scenes of formality had been entirely destroyed, and the remaining movers and shakers had already begun to squabble over the scraps. To be continued, indeed.

July 03, 2008

Regional Schools Celebration @ The Courtyard Theatre

On Monday, the Courtyard Theatre hosted the Regional Schools Celebration, a culmination of sorts of the first phase of the RSC's Stand Up for Shakespeare campaign. Featuring a full programme of nine 25 minute playlets by school groups ranging from primary to 6th form, interspersed with awards ceremonies and talking heads, the event was a large-scale public celebration of the work the RSC are doing in schools across the country.

Stand Up for Shakespeare

I wasn't going to write a blog about this event, much less a review, as I thought it would be inappropriate given the nature of the event. However, I haven't been able to get some of the playlets out of my head. The ideas and work that went into them were in several cases extremely interesting, and the work deserved attention (as Michael Coveneyagrees on his blog). Sadly I was only able to stay for the morning, but I thought I would include a breakdown of what I saw as, particularly when you consider the age of the kids, there was stuff here that I would really like to remember.

The day itself was compered by Hardeep Singh Kohli, with contributions in the morning from both Michael Boyd and Michelle Gomez - a nice gesture, having the Artistic Director and current leading actor in attendance. Hardeep himself did a solid job of hosting, with a whole selection of terrible puns that were primarily designed to cover the changes between casts. Nonetheless, he seemed to have a genuine enthusiasm for the event, and the atmosphere in the Courtyard was good throughout.

Hardeep Singh Kohli
Hardeep Singh Kohli

Julius Caesar by Queen's Park Primary, West Kilburn, London

The first show began with the theatre being plunged into darkness. A loud epic soundtrack boomed out, while the children tiptoed onto the stage from various sides, shining torches in their faces and onto the audience before gathering in the centre and becoming the conspirators of Caesar. Seeing school drama benefit from the technical capabilities of the RSC's main house was one of the pleasures of the day, though this was the only production to achieve such a startling effect from it. The production tapped into ideas both of surveillance and of street violence; opening with the conspirators and the murder, two 'newsreaders' (stood on the side balconies) then took over the reporting of the event through a series of news-style flashbacks and vox pops with dissatisfied Romans. A focus on the gullible doggedness of the crowd to believe whoever was talking made the orations scene particularly interesting, the crowd caring passionately about the last thing that was spoken. To this end, the playlet captured this school's fascination with the power of propaganda, which ultimately destroyed everyone. A fascinating insight into the contemporary resonances which the staff and students had found in the play, and also a particularly impressive performance from the young girl playing Brutus. Throughout the day I was impressed at how well the young people held the Courtyard stage, but Brutus in this play was superb, clear and powerful all the way.

Henry V - In Love and War by Fred Longworth School, Atherton, Manchester

The most sophisticated of the five plays, and practically deserving of a full review of its own. Fred Longworth's retelling of Henry V was an innovative and fascinating one that brought several original ideas to the text. It had been trimmed down from an hour long, but in this 25 minute version we caught a glimpse of the excellent work that had gone into it. Taking a slant that focussed on issues of love and marriage, this production centred Katherine, playing her scenes almost in full. Adding in dialogue from Romeo and Juliet, a new narrative was created that saw the King of France commanding his daughter to prepare for marriage with Henry in case of defeat, much to her disgust and panic. To this end, in a genius scene, her French lesson became a comically violent preparation, with her miming how she was going to use her fingers, nails and 'bilbows' to punch, scratch, poke and gut her 'enemy'. In the final scene, in another excellent decision, Henry mixed Shakespearean dialogue with contemporary phrases to emphasise the 'plainness' of his speech, eventually winning her over through her directness. The Chorus was played by three young actresses who were all extremely articulate verse-speakers, splitting the lines between them and throwing a tennis ball to various actors in order to start the scenes. I've heard good Choruses before, but for some reason the strong Manc accents worked perfectly with the verse, and were definitely the day's best vocal performances. I have no hesitation in saying that, even as abbreviated as it was, this was better than some of, say, the drama school performances in the Complete Works. Excellent work.

Romeo and Juliet - Friendship Never Dies by Churchill Gardens Primary, Westminster, London

This version of Romeo, performed by a group of very young children, drew its power from the knowledge that the children go to school in a particularly rough part of East London (according to Hardeep, anyway) that suffers badly from knife and gang culture. Almost entirely ignoring the romance aspects of the play, this production stripped Romeo down to its streetfighting, finding in it a message about retribution and the culture of respect that the children, despite their age, clearly knew all too well. Here, all the children came on stage to shout the play's early lines at each other in staged violence, while at the Capulet's Ball they danced to modern R&B (the guest list that Peter carried included such names as Beyonce and Rhiannon). After the ball, though, the narrative interestingly switched to Tybalt, stewing in his bedroom at the insult and disrespect that Romeo had paid him by coming to the party. Other actors voiced his thoughts while he paced back and forth. The play then skipped forward to the climactic duel, with Tybalt killing Mercutio and Romeo Tybalt, with plenty of focus on the young Romeo's decision to take his knife and continue the cycle of violence. The play's closing image, then, was of the Prince ordering Romeo to be dragged off, screaming, to prison while Juliet tried to follow him and was held back. No tragic deaths here, simply the inevitable - and very modern - consequences of a life of violence. Shocking in its bleakness and in the young children's grasp of matters of life and death, this was both disturbing and vital, Shakespeare used for exploring issues of monumental impact.

Mr Mac and the Ruler Army by Milton Abbot Primary, Devon

The final two productions didn't have the same impact, but were still entertaining and provided good comedy value. Milton Abbot School translated Macbeth to a primary school, "Dunsin Lane", with Mr. Duncan as the Headmaster, Mr. Mack and Mrs. Banks as teachers and a chorus of garishly made-up dinnerladies as the witches. The children obviously had great fun contemporising the play, with Duncan's murder becoming his expulsion for helping children cheat (deviously engineered by Mack), while Mack's tyranny was shown through his introduction of a 12 hour schoolday and no playtime. The contemporising eventually fell apart (Mr. Duff and Mr. Mack settled their differences through, erm, a sword fight!),  but it remained an entertaining and often funny take on Macbeth.

Supernatural in Shakespeare by Fred Nicholson School, Norfolk

By far the most bizarre of the morning's productions, Fred Nicholson (a school with a particular focus on students with special needs) took the Mechanicals of A Midsummer Night's Dream and brought them onto the Jeremy Kyle Show in an effort to resolve the differences and squabbles caused by Bottom always taking the best parts for himself. This was a highly unusual idea, of course, but one which allowed them to explore ideas of bullying in a contemporary context. Heavily reliant on audience participation, the boys did a good job of encouraging audience participation through cheering and booing. Through the middle of this skipped Puck, who played tricks on the young actors throughout. Regardless of the content, it was clear that a great deal of work and creative thought had gone into this playlet and, as with all the groups performing, the students seemed to have developed themselves through the act of rehearsing and performing as well as learning their Shakespeare, and that was the most important thing.

I couldn't stay for the afternoon, but I was sorry to leave. I won't lie, I expected that the day would be something of a chore, but I was very pleased to be proved wrong. The work done by the young people was eminently watchable and I was surprised at how enjoyable the day was. I'm not the right person to comment on the RSC's education strategy, on the methodologies being employed or the manifesto that "Stand Up for Shakespeare" presents, but the day showed a large group of children who had got a great deal out of exploring Shakespeare practically, and that can't be bad.

March 25, 2007

Before the Bardathon

As we enter the final week of my year-long project, I’m going to be posting a few retrospective entries in addition to the final couple of reviews. First up, I thought for interest I’d mention my PREVIOUS Shakespeare theatre-going.

I haven’t been attending the theatre as long as many people think. Being a Northerner born-and-bred, and not having a lot of money at that, my theatregoing ability was severely restricted until I started university five and a half years ago. Even since then, it’s only been a couple of years since I really discovered Stratford and started going regularly, and my experience of Shakespearean performance in London is also somewhat limited. What I HAVE done, however, is read and study performance history extensively, which has helped me catch up in no small part on the productions I’ve missed. In addition, I’ve watched pretty much every screen production I can get my hands on.

So, before the Complete Works, what have I seen? A good few productions still, though my memory of them fails in several places. For interest, then, here’s what I have seen:

AS YOU LIKE IT (RSC 2005, dir. Dominic Cooke, at the RST)

Aside from a big tree, a very VERY dull production of ‘As You Like It’ by Dominic Cooke. Some nice moments, but from the Circle the production died a slow and painful death in the second act, which was far longer than the first, and simple wasn’t funny apart from Paul Chahidi’s Touchstone.

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (RSC 2005, dir. Nancy Meckler, at the RST)

Hysterical and highly acclaimed, as well as introducing me to the talents of Forbes Masson and Jonathan Slinger as the Dromios. Fast, funny and exactly how an ‘Errors’ should be.

HAMLET (RSC 2004, dir. Michael Boyd, at the RST)

I don’t remember much of this, apart from a few single moments. I do remember, however, Toby Stephens’ Hamlet being pretty damned good!

HENRY V (WUDS 2002 at Warwick Arts Centre Studio)

A student production- very low budget, but lively and, particularly in the memorable scenes involving the four soldiers of different nationalities, quite funny too. An all-female cast was the main innovation.

KING JOHN (RSC 2001, dir. Gregory Doran, at the Swan)

Memorable mostly for a spectacular fall from the upper balcony for Arthur, and for the spectacular use of flags and symbols. Generally a very good production, though I enjoyed the 2006 production better.

JULIUS CAESAR (WUDS 2002/3? at Warwick Arts Centre Theatre)

Notable for being the last (I believe) non-musical student production to be staged in the main theatre at Warwick Arts Centre. Solid performances all round, a good use of stage space and innovative use of hand-held cameras for the war scenes made this a very interesting production.

MACBETH (Theatre Babel 2002?, at Warwick Arts Centre Theatre)

Not the greatest ‘Macbeth’, but a fantastic set of dangling swords that descended to ground level and were a constant reminder of the ever-present threat.

MACBETH (RSC 2004, dir. Dominic Cooke, at the RST)

Bizarrely, all I can remember of this production is the England scene, particularly Clive Wood’s Macduff. I seem to remember enjoying it, however.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (RSC 2005, dir. Gregory Doran, at the RST)

Truly magical, and only bettered by Tim Supple’s Indian ‘Dream’. Spectacular use of scenery, puppets and physical movement made this a true joy to watch, along with Malcolm Storry’s excellent Bottom and yet another hysterical performance by Paul Chahidi as Quince. The ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ will remain with me forever.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (RSC, 2006, at Warwick Arts Centre)

I can’t find anything anywhere about this event, which was performed for one night only at Warwick Arts Centre as part of a tour. Part concert, part performance, it saw a major orchestra performing Mendelssohn’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, while RSC actors performed the play between the beautiful score. While necessarily heavily limited by a tiny stage space and the concert format, this was a very fun version of the play, with excellent conflict between the lovers in particular and a superb orchestra playing the most famous Shakespearean music there is. Unfortunately, the evening was coloured by the fact my back collapsed and I had to be taken home by an ambulance afterwards…...

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (WUDS 2004?, dir. Ben Fowler, at Warwick Arts Centre Studio)

An interesting ‘Much Ado’, with spectacularly staged overhearing scenes and some interesting things to say about the play. Variable performances, but overall an interesting production.

OTHELLO (Cheek By Jowl 2004, dir. Declan Donnellan, at Riverside Studios London)

One of those divisive productions which people either loved or hated. Seeing it in traverse in London helped, I believe, but still I disliked the slow-talking Iago who seemed to have little control over his actions. However, the cast in general were excellent and the brutal murder of Desdemona, picking her up by the neck, was truly shocking.

SIR THOMAS MORE (RSC 2005, dir. Robert Delamere, at the Swan)

A highly enjoyable production that first introduced me to Nigel Cooke, who was similarly excellent in ‘Pericles’ and ‘A Winter’s Tale’ this season. Violent and exciting, a production which made a very strong case for the increased study in the theatre of this play.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (RSC Touring Company 2000, dir. Lindsay Posner, at Epic Leisure Centre, Ellesmere Port)

A fascinating induction, setting the play in modern day with Sly surfing for porn on the internet and eventually stumbling across an online video of the play. After that, a very funny production that still stays in the mind despite the relatively long time since and my unfamiliarity with it. Still the only RSC touring production I’ve seen.

THE TEMPEST (Shakespeare’s Globe 2000, dir. Lenka Udovicki, at the Globe)

My only experience of the Globe, and an interesting production- with a memorably ethereal Ariel who left the auditorium through the audience, a violent Caliban who kept the crowd laughing with his constant swearing at the overhead planes, and Vanessa Redgrave as an interesting Prospero.

TWELFTH NIGHT (RSC 2005, dir. Michael Boyd, at the RST)

I remember much favourable about this production, mostly the comedians- Forbes Masson, Andrew Mackay and Clive Wood winding up Richard Cordery’s Malvolio to perfection, before going on to greater things in the History plays this year. However, I hated this at the time- overall it was sloppy and dull, with awful performances from Viola, Olivia and Sebastian in particular. Lots of interest, lots of style, but very few laughs and an ultimately dull reading.

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (RSC 1998, dir. Edward Hall, at the Swan)

And finally, the first Shakespeare I ever saw. This picture is the only bit I really remember- a very funny Crab and Launce, who stay in my mind over nine years later. The Swan has remained one of my favourite theatres over the years too, and it’s nice to think back this far, to the start of my RSC viewing, and still be able to recall little things about a play.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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