Julius Caesar, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 9 June 2012
An unmistakably African crowd thronged inside a crumbling stadium, its steep steps interrupted by a central entrance tunnel. Outside the stadium, to the rear of this main space, stood a massive statue of a man facing away from us with his arm raised in despotic salutation.
The masonry resembled an approximation of Roman architecture, only the reinforcement protruding from the crumbling concrete confirmed the structure to be modern.
This deliberate confusion of ancient and modern pointed to the production’s keynote emphasis on making this Roman history play relevant to the contemporary world.
The house lights were kept up at the start of the performance when the onstage crowd were told to go “Hence, home…” in an attempt to make the audience feel part of the populace.
When he appeared in his white suit, Caesar looked like an ageing wannabe autocrat, brandishing a chieftain’s fly whisk (1.2). He was greeted by supporters wearing his stylised picture on t-shirts, chanting his name.
Paterson Joseph played Brutus with the lightweight self-satisfaction of the skilless rebel displaying a kind of empty vanity. Cassius by contrast was worthy but dull. During their first secretive conversation, he constantly looked around as if wary of informers.
Their familiarity was emphasised when Brutus and Cassius made a game of repeating “Eyes see but by reflection” as if this was some kind of private joke.
Cassius appeared bone dry when he encountered wise old Casca during the storm (1.3).
Brutus’ thinking aloud about joining the conspiracy against Caesar (2.1) was very eloquent. However, there was a hint that this eloquence was the result of him addressing the audience rather slowly and deliberately as if he considered us dull-witted. Seen in this light, he displayed a certain intellectual vanity.
But there was a brief flash of humour when he explained that the letter left for him by Brutus could be read by the light of the exhalations. We all knew this was thanks to the stage lighting.
The conspiratorial faction entered and stood on the steps. We began to see Brutus asserting control and making series of fateful decisions. He was tragic because he was unaware of his own incompetence. He contradicted the others at least three times, the most serious instance of which was to leave Antony alive.
Portia was excellent in pointing out the hypocrisy of Brutus telling her not to walk in the fresh air while doing so himself and claiming to be ill. She showed her “voluntary wound”, which she slapped when dispatching Lucius to the Senate.
By 2.2 Caesar was an old man who looked as if he was failing. Decius skilfully contradicted Calphurnia’s interpretation of his dream and fed his vanity. The conspirators came to fetch Caesar and they all left through the tunnel. Artemidorus read his warning from the roof of the tunnel (2.3).
The Soothsayer stood on the tunnel roof as Caesar and the conspirators entered, the space now representing the Senate. There was tension as Popilius seemed to have rumbled them.
Caesar was stabbed from behind. Brutus stood at the edge of the stage right walkway and simply looked on without taking part, but stabbed last after Caesar had seen him and commented on his apparent treachery.
Even here Brutus was telling people what to do. The “Stoop Romans” was his idea. He had another idea “Let’s all cry ‘Peace’…” he insisted. He paused after the word “peace” which underlined the absurdity of a blood-drenched assassin speaking of that concept.
In the aftermath of the murder, the conspirators warily drew daggers on others who approached them.
Antony entered boldly and shook their bloody hands. When he had finished he looked at his now blood-stained hands and shrieked when the reality of Caesar’s death struck home.
Brutus told Antony “to you our swords have leaden points” but then pointed his dagger right at Antony when instructing him how to proceed with the funeral oration. This was another Brutus error.
Mark Antony’s amazing “Cry Havoc” soliloquy reached a powerful conclusion whose force prefigured how formidable an opponent he would turn out to be.
People gathered around the tunnel entrance to hear Brutus speak (3.2). They nodded and agreed with him. Caesar’s shrouded body was brought in below and Antony spoke from the tunnel roof. At first he could not make himself heard, leading into famous speech opening in which he begged audience.
He took a cup of water from the Soothsayer and poured it down onto the ground before saying “He was my friend”. He turned away from the audience and paused with emotion before continuing, which was very effective.
Antony descended to the stage and the plinth on which Caesar body was laid rose to about waist height. Antony pulled the cover off to reveal Caesar’s bloody wounds. He spat out the victorious words “Now let it work” when people had changed to support him.
In a striking reference to the recent history of South Africa, in 3.3 Cinna the Poet was killed by necklacing. A tyre was put around his neck and he was doused with petrol. His killers escorted him through the tunnel offstage. A red glow of flame from behind the stadium steps indicated his fiery fate.
That red glow was seen again, this time from the fires sweeping the whole of Rome, when the uniformed Antony, Octavius and Lepidus gathered for 4.1 and organised their purge.
The setting changed to the rebel encampment (4.2/3). Canvas was attached to the sides of the tunnel entrance to make it into a doorway of a tent. A camp table and chairs were placed centre stage. When arguing with Cassius, Brutus was even more annoying than usual. He physically attacked the Poet when ordering him to leave, which made Brutus look very cruel.
They sat around the table with Titinius and Messala. Brutus pretended that he had not heard the news about Portia and made game out of denying it. “Why, farewell Portia” was spoken as false grief. He was evidently bored at this news being brought to him again. This deception was another example of his sense of superiority.
Cassius’ proposed tactics to be adopted at Philippi, letting their opponent tire themselves in their advance, were explained using stones to represent the embattled forces. Brutus contradicted Cassius, using oranges to represent the supporters and provisions that Antony’s army would acquire as they advanced towards them. This was yet another wrong call by Brutus.
The tide analogy was explained by gestures indicating the different levels of water. This actually looked good as it explained the advantage of being at the high tide.
Brutus’ companions fell asleep in the tent. Lucius nodded off sat before an African lyre instrument, still working it with his thumbs to comical effect when Brutus took it from him. The stage stilled for the ghost sequence.
“How ill this taper burns!” saw the candle dim making the stage darker, which served as the cue for appearance of Caesar’s ghost. The statue at the back turned 90 degrees to the right and fell Saddam statue-style to the ground. Caesar entered with a white cloth over his head, which he removed to show his saluting form, a direct echo of the statue.
Afterwards Brutus checked with the others to see if they had seen anything, and when they replied in the negative, this foolishly enabled him to conclude that nothing had actually happened. This was typical of his capacity for self-deception.
The two armies met for a parlay with their Kalashnikovs (5.1). “Good words are better than bad strokes”, said Brutus cockily, clearly convinced that he was witty.
Lucius held his gun upside down, which Brutus corrected. The final farewell between Brutus and Cassius was touching. Given the impending disaster signposted by Brutus’ folly, it looked very timely.
When the day was lost (5.3) Pindarus killed Cassius instantly at the very moment that he covered his face with his hand. This was a very logical and obedient reaction to his instruction, but looked as if Pindarus had jumped the gun and killed him when Cassius was merely demonstrating the fatal sign. Then again, taking him by surprise could have been an attempt to reduce Cassius’ anxious expectation of death.
Titinius and Messala seemed happy until they saw Cassius dead, but Titinius did not kill himself as per the text, so that Brutus found only Cassius’ body.
After the brief scene (5.4) in which Lucilius impersonated Brutus and was captured, Brutus and his men rested on the steps (5.5). Explosions were heard in the background, which served as alarums. In his final gesture, Brutus got Lucius, not Strato, to hold his sword and ran himself through with it.
Transferring the action to Africa worked, particularly with the necklacing reference. The genuine and approximated east African accents provided an extra twang to the musicality of the verse.
But with its focus on Brutus at the expense of Cassius, and the underscoring of the former’s ineptitude, the final moments of the production in which he was praised as “the noblest Roman of them all” appeared strange and unwarranted.