I’m probably the only person in London who didn’t see Ivo Van Hove’s Roman Tragedies last weekend but, aggrieved though I was at missing out, I found solace in anticipation of the opening salvo of Angus Jackson’s RSC Rome season. “It’s okay,” I told myself, “I’m going to Stratford on Thursday to see Julius Caesar – that’ll do as a substitute.” Yeah, right, what an idiot, what presumption of Arachnean proportions.
Jackson’s production is so blandly conventional that it seems a Herculean task to wring but a few hundred words from it. What did it look like? Meh. Were the actors any good? Meh. What about Jackson’s direction? Meh. What was the play again? Meh. And yet the programme notes profess an urgent timeliness, and the programme notes are an honourable man. Don’t believe it: there’s nothing special about 2017. As Mary Beard would no doubt tell you, the Roman Republic is always relevant.
Actually, that’s all a bit unfair. This Julius Caesar does have one thing going for it: Robert Innes Hopkins’ design, which powerfully evokes Republican Rome in all its haughty majesty: a soaring row of columns (ionic? doric? anaemic?), the fateful steps of the Senate House, a raised rostrum in the centre of the stage, all realised in cold, white faux-marble. A sculpture, possibly nicked from the British Museum, depicting a Lion taking a chunk out of a collapsing horse, stands naked and proud. A savage predator, sinking its teeth in and never letting go – exactly what Jackson’s production fails to do.
Julius Caesar is a great play – a swords-and-sandals tale of febrile conspiracy, of vaulting ambition, and of bloody betrayal that soars to peaks of rhetorical brilliance before sinking into pits of suicidal despair. I’ve yet to see Caesar slump on the Senate steps without a quiver of emotion, yet to hear a “Cry Havoc!” that didn’t induce goosebumps, and yet to hear a “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” that didn’t astonish with its sly sophistry.
Most productions can sustain themselves on such eloquence and craft; the real test of any Julius Caesar is in how well it negotiates the other bits – the less quoted bits, the bits in between the speeches and the stabbings – and it’s here that Jackson’s vision feels as dry as a Parthian desert. All drama here stems from the play, not the production.
The young ensemble is just not up to populating the monumental Rome Hopkins has carved for it. Alex Waldmann offers an earnest Brutus, but comes nowhere near suggesting the iron backbone and faultless moral compass of a man willing to die for his country. Martin Hutson’s wiry, sinewy Cassius – check out those neck muscles – is better, but one would still rather get the number of his personal trainer than assassinate a dictator with him. These are cubs not lions, children not statesmen. Nobility and courage run through the text like the Tiber through Rome, but the river has all but dried up here.
There are only sporadic flashes of interest. Caesar’s demise, his gasped “Et Tu, Brute?”, is a thrillingly staged bloodbath. James Corrigan’s boyish Mark Antony finds the black humour in his famous speech at Caesar’s funeral. A young servant boy comes a cropper at Philippi with shocking, squeamish brutality. And every one of Hopkins’ set changes – which take us from a serene Senate, to a clamorous forum, to a fire-lit camp and back again – is done with achingly refined style. It’s simply not enough, though. Nowhere near enough.
Oh, how I wish things had been different. How I wish Jackson’s cast had been able to fill the lofty acreage of Hopkins’ mighty Rome. How I wish the RSC had some balls for once, and had done something exciting. How I wish it were last weekend, and I could still snaffle a day ticket to Roman Tragedies. Don’t, just don’t.
Julius Caesar is on until 9th September 2017 in Stratford upon Avon. Click here for more details.