Monday, 27 November 2017

Stage Blood

The Barbican

I was up in London on Friday night to see Shakespeare's Julius Caesar performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican. It's an odd play, Julius Caesar. Like Hamlet, it seems to be entirely composed out of famous quotations and turns of phrase that have entered the language, spread out by scenes involving people stabbing each other or themselves with swords and/or daggers. In fact, the play does actually bear a strong family resemblance to both Hamlet and Henry V, both almost certainly written around the same time. To be honest, I could have sworn Mark Antony's words "cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war" were to be found in Henry V, and that the various agonisings by Brutus over the gap between thought and deed were outtakes from Hamlet. Shakespeare clearly had certain things preying on his mind around the turn of the century. The play used to be much more performed than it has been in recent times: the RSC's "revival" of the Roman plays is intended, I'm sure, to point up the contemporary relevance of their meditations on governance, absolutism, and the corruptions of power. They've gone for the full toga and sandals, though, rather than some modern camo-and-Kalashnikov setting, which, these days, counts as bravely controversial. It must be a problem for the crew, getting all that blood off those pristine white togas every night ("Impossible? No, dramaturgical!"*). Or perhaps they're reversible.

This is a perfectly competent version of the play by the RSC, as you would expect, with some nice touches, but oddly under-produced, I thought. In fact, although it improves immensely after the interval, the first half reminded me of nothing so much as a rather superior school play, with its static set, and too many minor characters and extras standing around doing the physical equivalent of muttering "Rhubarb! Rhubarb!". Plus, when a sword penetrates someone's guts on stage, as they frequently do in this play, for £50 a ticket I expect it to come out bloody, and not as shiny as when it went in, and for at least a little gore to be spilled, given the amount that ends up on stage when Caesar is stabbed to death. I mean, srsly; didn't they crack that one in Shakespeare's time? There was also far too much pouncing on hidden ironies and double entendres in the text that could be camped up or over-emphasised to get sitcom style laughs ("Julius Caesar is recorded before a live TV audience"). This is a disease of modern acting that needs stamping out. This is not meant to be a funny play. For me, Mark Antony casually breaking Brutus's boy servant's neck with an audible crack that made the audience gasp rather than titter was far more like it.

The school play comparison seemed to stick in my mind. Well, it's that time of year, isn't it? The end of the winter term draws near, with the days shortening until it's already dark at the end of the school day, and with the tinselly mass-hysteria of Christmas just coming over the horizon. Somehow, old memories seem to crowd in more tightly and in a purer distillation as November becomes December, and few are as vivid as the anxiety that accompanies trying to learn the few lines of some minor walk-on part, or wearing tights in front of your peers. Across the country, some poor devil will have been tasked with putting on a play to be performed in front of parents towards the end of the year – in my day almost invariably a Shakespeare – and imposing some discipline on the untested acting skills of a dozen or two 11-17-year-old children. In fact, I do now vaguely recall Julius Caesar itself being performed at my school somewhere around 1967, but only because one of my classmates was cast as Cinna the Poet, to be chased across the stage and killed in that oddly pointless case of mistaken identity by the brutal, fickle, and easily-swayed mob (it's hard to escape the feeling that Shakespeare was not an instinctive democrat).

Come to think of it, Julius Caesar is a good choice of play for an all-boys school, as there are just two small female roles, wives of leading characters, and the play's mood is about as hyper-masculine as a rugby-club changing room. Even so, I was slightly taken aback by the apparent misogyny on display at the Barbican. Sure, there's a lot of butch Roman talk in the play of Caesar whining like a girl when he's struck down with man-flu in Spain and the like, but the director has woven this into the texture of the whole play. Indeed, a typically Elizabethan display of hand-clasping, embracing, and love-and-eternal-friendship-pledging in all the key male relationships is extended into distinctly homo-erotic territory – bizarrely, the final angry row and reconciliation between Cassius and Brutus before the final, fatal battle is played like a lovers' tiff in a romcom – and the wives are given even shorter shrift by their husbands than the text really warrants. It's a valid take on the play, I suppose, but an odd one to be seeing in 2017, unless the idea is that plots, assassinations, counter-plots, and suicides – bodies all over the stage – are the sort of mess you get into in male-dominated, honour-driven, aristocratic societies unchecked by ameliorating influences. Though, as I say, I think you'd be looking a long time through his plays before finding much evidence of Shakespeare's democratic instincts.

By the way, talking of Christmas, I have now received the first batch of calendars from Vistaprint, and they've done their usual excellent job. I ordered most on 235g premium glossy paper, plus a few on 220g satin paper: the glossy is, um, shiny with deeper blacks and higher contrast, the satin is more of a matte finish, with slightly lower contrast. Both are good. If you decide you'd like to buy one (see previous post) I will assume you want the glossy version unless you say otherwise.

Calendar: October 2018

* One for the regular (and older) readers...


amolitor said...

It's a lot like that movie "The Princess Bride", constructed entirely out of quotes. You'd think the screenwriters could do better than that, the lazy sots.

Mike C. said...

Don't know that film, I may check it out: hopefully there is lots of sword-stabbing, too, to hold the quotes together.


amolitor said...

There is some stabbing. But it is also quote funny. And, you may be surprised to learn, quotable.

Martyn Cornell said...

The Alleyne's Julius Caesar was December 1968, and Cinna the Poet was played by IJ Cropton of 4A. Keith Glazebrook was Brutus, Fred Waitt, Cassius and Alan Smith, Mark Antony. (One MA Cornell had a brief appearance as Caius Ligarius.) Alan Smith subsequently played the leads in both King Lear and Hamlet at Alleyne's, and later went on to study drama at Manchester University, and has appeared in Coronation Street and Hollyoaks. Strangely, the 1968 Julius Caesar is not listed among the productions in the chapter on school performances down the years in An Innings Well Played, the school history. It was, of course, a Cross-Fox-Splett production.

Mike C. said...


Yes, I noticed that absence in that history, too, when I checked, and wondered why (not to mention a lot of other absences e.g. any mention whatsoever of the academic side of things! Oxbridge scholarships? What they?).