17th Jan, 2019

REVIEW - Julius Caesar/Antony and Cleopatra - RSC Stratford

Correspondent 24th Mar, 2017

Julius Caesar/Antony and Cleopatra

RST Stratford

THE RSC turns its focus on the internecine politics of the Roman Empire in two of Shakespeare’s weightier plays, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.

These productions share a refreshingly conventional approach. Plenty of togas and leather armour are in evidence and the absence of any arbitrarily imposed re-imagining of the setting allows the actors to get on with telling the tale. When in Rome it seems applies as the underlying maxim here.

The design for both productions come from Robert Innes Hopkins. It is based on the frontage and steps of Rome’s public buildings. A cunningly-used central square set into the stage offering everything from a high platform to a sunken pit. The whole is set against a huge backdrop of constantly changing stormy skies.

All the necessary plottings and machinations are there. Julius Caesar has long been a go-to representation of the political coup and Angus Jackson’s sharp direction brings out the undercurrent of changing loyalties and expedient betrayal superbly.

Martin Hutson’s Cassius and Alex Waldmann’s Brutus scheme perfectly at the start and in the subsequent bloody removal of Caesar. The later meeting between the two in Brutus’s tent provides one of the highlights of the production.

Although there is a strong ensemble sense about the acting, most notably when the senate is in full flow, at times there is a lack of weight. The cast is a young one and the feeling is of a younger generation taking over.

This fast-paced , youthful approach leads to the occasional odd pitching in some scenes with bursts of very funny naturalism jarring against the poetry from time to time. Nowhere is this more evident than in Mark Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral. The barely concealed grief at the start rapidly gives way to a comic oratory style of playing the crowd at times straying into market trader territory.

Iqbal Khan’s handling of Antony and Cleopatra is, again, pleasingly lacking in unnecessary trickery. The expansive geography of the action is not allowed toget in the way of what is a very slick, pacy reading of the play.

While there are many fine contributions to be seen throughout the cast (Andrew Woodall’s gratingly naff estuary Enobarbus aside), this is a production which forms itself around the two central performances and they certainly do not disappoint.

Antony Byrne’s Mark Antony is strong and self-willed but with enough doubts to bring out those underlying cracks in the character. He captures admirably a man torn between taking the relaxed life he wants and feeling that there is enough pull to send him to the battlefield one more time.

Josette Simon’s Cleopatra is extraordinary but magnificent. She seems to be drawing inspiration from any and every direction. At times she’s a petulant teenager demanding attention, then a consummate actress pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes; one moment sex-crazed, the next grief-stricken. It’s a characterisation closer to celebrity than royalty but it’s all the more watchable for that.

Taken in tandem there is plenty in these productions to recommend them. Amid the clamour and pomp of great empires, these are essentially human stories of ambition, mistrust, love and regret and they are allowed to come across as plainly and as engagingly as we’d could hope for.

Matthew Salisbury

Julius Caesar runs until September 9, Antony & Cleopatra until September 7. Visit www.rsc.org.uk for tickets and further details.

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