Thursday, 18 January 2018

The RSC's Caesar was a dish fit for the gods

It was a plain classroom with traditional, simple desks that still had a place for an inkwell. It was the mid-1970s and it was my second year at Fairfield, a state grammar school for girls that stands just up the road from where Manchester City strut their stuff now.

The school is linked to an historic Moravian settlement – at least 75% of the reason that my rather religious parents decided to send me as far again as far as the nearest grammar school (in Ashton) when I passed my 11+.

The other reason was that Ashton was co-ed. Fairfield just had 800 girls in those days. By way of further colour, they were either football or speedway fans – Belle Vue speedway was not far away, but it the former, then obviously either City of or the mob from Salford.

Regular readers of this blog know that I have been a Blue since around 1974.

Anyway, it was my second year. We had been introduced to Shakespeare via the traditional route of The Dream – because … y’know … fairies, lurve etc (nothing to do with Titania lusting after someone who has been turned into an animal that the first audiences would easily have known had a whopping penis – thanks to Jill Betjeman’s doctoral thesis for this coming to my attention some years ago) and after that, it was Julius Caesar.

I remember the books: small hardbacks, annotated by generations of pupils. Years later, I started buying the Arden texts because they actually provided contextual essays and serious notes. You possibly don’t want to get me started on Merchant.

The lessons are remembered in a general sense – the teacher would ‘cast’ the characters for the next section and we would read before analysing. Since I had already shown a certain flair for reading aloud/acting, I was usually quite pleasantly busy.

Later, we did Romeo and Juliet. I seemed to be the only one in the class that hated it (I still dislike it, even having seen the seriously memorable Michael Bogdanov 1986 RSC production at Stratford with Sean ‘One-Note’ Bean, Niamh Cusack and a fabulous, black leather-clad Hugh Quarshie – lust alert – as Tybalt).

However, in the case of old Julie, I was the only one who seemed to care for the play.

So, fast forward 40-plus years. The RSC were bringing their Roman season to the Barbican and both The Other Half and I wanted to see at least two and, if we could, the whole batch.

In the event, since I ended up spending November and December dealing with serious family problems, we hadn’t even got around to booking by the time 2017 morphed into 2018. Then, just over a week ago, an alarm bell sounded in my head and I looked at whether it was still possible to get in for anything.

Remarkably, with just a couple of performances to go for the entire season, I was able to get tickets for Julius Caesar.

Subsequently, I have read a number of reviews. It’s an odd occasion where I find myself aligned with the Guardian’s Michael Billington (stopped clocks ‘n’ all). But most were, in my opinion, really quite stupid. For instance, more than one seemed to doubt that theatre audiences are clever enough to catch the modern relevance of the play – unless it’s done in contemporary dress with posters of Trump plastered all over the set!

Now it might be that I’m *so* much more intelligent than most people in this country that I do not need to have such literal signposts – or perhaps not. But I certainly had no problem seeing the relevance, for all its classical Roman setting.

Other reviews whined that Alex Waldmann’s Brutus isn’t, y’know, heroic enough. He doubts, he wavers – and then he rushes at it all like a naive fundamentalist. Disagree with this interpretation by all means, but it is nonetheless a valid and very interesting one.

Personally, finally seeing the play on stage, so long after loving it so much at school … I thought that it was an exceptional production that brought home to me just how very good this play is in the first place.

As with Macbeth, Shakespeare absolutely ‘got’ politics and the behaviour that goes with it. There are no obvious ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ – even those who see the tyranny of Caesar are not themselves immune from behaving in a way that is dictatorial.

I utterly adored seeing this done in Roman dress – the first time I’ve seen a play like this done in such historic dress. I have no problem with modern-dress productions – but I thought this was wonderful. I love the sort of set that Robert Innes Hopkins gave us: simple, yet sophisticated.

Angus Jackson’s production was, for me, one of the best things I’ve seen in a very long time – and it brought home to me just what a truly great play this is. My teenage self was not wrong.

Martin Hutson – simply superb as Cassius
On the cast, while Waldmann’s Brutus does challenge our preconceptions of the character, it is a far, far better performance than some reviews would lead you to believe. Hannah Morrish (in her debut RSC season) is wonderful in her brief time on stage as Portia, Andrew Woodall’s Caesar is an excellent study of a supercilious despot, his Bill Nighy-like spit-lisp utterly spot on, while  James Corrigan as Mark Antony is superb – not least in wooing the mob with the oratory of the “Friends, Romans, countrymen speech, ending as it does when he rips up the fake will that he has used to rouse the crowd.

The ensemble cast was excellent. But the star performance really does come from Martin Hutson as Cassius – simply stunning.

One of the joys of this is that there were no simplistic ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Every single character is flawed. And by the end, it's hard to know who you sympathise with – or not. Indeed, I felt that Cassius comes out of it with rather more integrity than others.

For various reasons, I haven’t seen the RSC for around 20 years. This reminded me why it is such a great company, why Shakespeare is still so relevant – and why Julius Caesar is such a sensationally good play.

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