Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
  Opened 26 May, 2009

Mark Antony refers to the dead Brutus at the end of this play as "the noblest Roman of them all", but there is precious little nobility in the world of Lucy Bailey's production, in which the urban mob of the first half are if anything more violent than the contending armies of the second. As the audience enter, two men onstage are fighting animalistically to the death; the opening of the play proper shows just as atavistic a version of the feast of Lupercal, before we get into the business of Caesar and his assassins.
This is, in effect, the Rome of the BBC/HBO television series which so divided opinions in its graphic depiction of what is claimed to be the unsalubrious historical reality. Programme essays here argue that "noble Rome" is an invention of the last century or two, yet Shakespeare's own work, not least his early narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece, gives the lie to such a view. Bailey and designer William Dudley overplay their hand with this grim vision, its video backdrops of seething crowds and the Capitol in CGI flames.
Although he played Brutus in the RSC’s 2001 production, Caesar himself is a very Greg Hicks role. Hicks is not afraid to inhabit the arrogance of a character who habitually refers to himself in the third person and whose ambition is conspicuous, whatever Mark Antony may say to the contrary in his funeral oration. Darrell D'Silva's Antony is a bruiser who suddenly shows his calculating side in that magnificently structured demagogic funeral speech. As the chief conspirators, Sam Troughton (following his father David into RSC leads) is a principled but occasionally febrile Brutus who almost collapses under the interrogation of his wife Portia, while John Mackay's Cassius is as lean and hungry as required, but his principal function is to be less noble than Brutus. There it is, that word again; we cannot escape it. To be sure, Shakespeare had contemporary political matters in mind when he wrote the play towards the end of Elizabeth I's reign; but just as certainly, he enjoyed the monarch's favour and used much of his writing to enshrine officially sanctioned values. Rome may have been far less ordered than we usually imagine, but this is a production in which mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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