Thalissa Teixeira shines as Brutus. Photo: Marc Brenner @ The RSC
I’ve seen Julius Caesar once before: Dominic Dromgoole’s 2014 Globe Production. Dressed in togas, wielding daggers and swords – it was everything you’d expect from a traditional production of Julius Caesar.
Having said this, Julius Caesar is not a play unfamiliar with innovation. In 2012, (the last time the RSC did Julius Caesar), Gregory Doran made a version set in contemporary Africa. Just four years ago, the Donmar Warehouse set a production of the play in a women’s prison. After all, the play’s concerns – power, politics, violence, corruption – are not limited to Ancient Rome, but reach right into the present day.
It is these traditions of innovation and of contemporary concerns from which Atri Banerjee draws in the RSC’s touring production of Julius Caesar. You are struck, as you enter the Lowry’s Lyric theatre, by a stage drenched in dry ice, and a large cuboid centrepiece that is the only piece on the set.
This version has further innovations. Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s most male-dominated plays, but here, Brutus and Cassius are played by Thalissa Texeira and Annabel Baldwin. Pronouns for the two are consistently switched from ‘he’ to ‘she’ (this is despite Baldwin’s identification as non-binary – I can only assume that this is because they have replaced Kelly Gough, who played Cassius earlier in the show’s run). This shift works throughout, even when Mark Antony (William Robinson) declares of Brutus that ‘she is an honourable man’.
Jamal Ajala, who you might recognise as Dermian from season 2 of Netflix’s The Witcher, is a deaf actor, who signs his lines as Lucius, Brutus’ personal servant. There’s a real poignancy in the delivery of his lines, without any loss of meaning for those who are, like me, unfamiliar with BSL. Symbolically, Ajala’s performance as silent servant reminds us of the play’s main themes. This is a play about the infightings of an elite class with very little concern for the people, who are depicted very sparsely in the play, and when they do, as in, for example, the first scene, are largely spectators – they are, as Brutus describes them, ‘common eyes’ without a voice.
Not all of the play’s innovations work, however. The play sneaks up on you – the lights aren’t dimmed for the first ten seconds, and this means that there’s none of the customary phone announcement. Maybe it’s a small detail, but phones went off several times during the production, which really didn’t help with a suspension of disbelief.
The opening is the first of many interpretative dances during the production. It’s hard to understand what the audience is meant to get from it – some parts are mesmeric, but largely it feels gimmicky, amateurish, and it just does not make sense. One moment, at least, is interpretable: William Robinson, who plays Mark Antony, wolf howls. When he is joined on the third or fourth howl by the rest of the cast, we understand one possible meaning, hearing, in the anguished yowling of the cast, the birth of Rome.
The music that accompanies these dances (and much of the rest of the play) drives the production forward, with pulsing, violent, percussion, and angular drones. The musicians, appearing periodically, sound great, especially the ‘Community Chorus’, six women, recruited from each of the play’s nine tour locations, here representing different challenges across the Salford area. It’s captivating throughout, and does a lot to salvage the opening of the play.
The sound more generally is exceptional. Alison Bomber and Ellen Hartley, responsible for Voice and Text, have succeeded in their roles; lines are spoken cleanly and projected with great clarity, the narrative is easy to follow, and the play’s pacing, too, is fast.
On an individual level, many of the actors were superb. Casca (Matthew Bulgo), one of the conspirators against Caesar, brings a terse urgency lacking in much of the play, and as Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, Jimenez Larraguivel is passionate and of a strong conviction. Thalissa Teixeira, playing Brutus, the play’s largest role (Caesar, despite his eponymity, is strikingly absent from much of the play), shines through, carefully conveying the conflicts in Brutus’ character – a love of Caesar and a need to destroy him. Her soliloquies, also, are clear and thoughtful, delivered to, not at, the audience.
In particular, though, William Robinson as Mark Antony is captivating. He moves between interiority – private despair and anguish at Caesar’s death – and the politicking exterior at Caesar’s funeral seamlessly. The famous ‘Friends, romans, countrymen’ speech is the high point of the whole show. Robinson manages to appear simultaneously chilling and calculated yet the speech is spurred on by love for his dead friend and rage at the conspirators – a passion that threatens at every moment to cascade over the top of his public persona.
There is something lacking, however, in the play’s portrayal of Julius Caesar. Nigel Barrett performs the lines well enough, but the character is lacking something. We do not fear Caesar – we do not even understand why others might; he seems rather like any other bumbling middle-aged politician wearing a cheap-looking, pale yellow shirt. Without this fear or impression of greatness, the play does not work, because the death of Caesar feels totally unexplainable, even unnecessary. This is not a Caesar that commands the stage, although it does not seem down to the acting. Rather, Caesar, in the larger scenes, with ten or more actors on stage at once, is constricted, small, one amongst many. The large cube that is, at times, quite an effective tool here makes the stage feel cramped. Caesar does not, cannot, govern the stage in the way Caesar should. Indeed, his later appearances to Brutus are often comic in nature – but the laughs feel misplaced – the comedy undermines the severity of the situation.
Caesar’s death, too, is underwhelming. Daggers are replaced by outstretched hands, and blood by a thick black oil – finally Caesar is replaced by a stand-in stained shirt. The oil is an interesting choice: the elites of the play are literally stained by the capitalistic greed that this oil represents. These ecological concerns of the play are continued in the projections on the cube at Caesar’s funeral; Banerjee’s director’s note recognises Just Stop Oil’s hurling of tomato soup onto Van Gogh’s sunflowers as an inspiration in the play. Symbolism thus supplants the play’s violence at every death (and there are many). While these are perhaps academically interesting symbols, the violence lacks a tangibility, loses that visceral brutality which pervades the play’s text.
This death is perhaps a microcosm of the whole play. Banerjee makes interesting, clever choices, but the play, as a whole, fails to conjure real emotion. The cube, by the play’s end, holds in it all those who have died, but it lacks the emotion it might do, because the emotion at their deaths, in the first place, was never conjured. It feels like there are so many ideas at play, at war; Banerjee’s ideas are conflicting, and often constrain the actors. There are sparks of brilliance in this play, but it never catches fire.