I have come here to bury Caesar, not to praise him. / The bright day is done, and we are for the dark.
This summer, as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Rome Season’, we have been treated to two plays which stand, hand-in-hand, as a series: Antony and Cleopatra forming the ‘sequel’ to Julius Caesar. I saw them in reverse (Julius Caesar therefore forming the ‘prequel’). The Rome season will continue with Coriolanus and the infamously bloody Titus Andronicus. And, with the two more famous plays kicking off the season, I’m sure we’re in for a violent, political chariot ride.
Antony and Cleopatra, the more opulent of the two plays, bathed less in milk and honey and more in gold and turquoise. The costume design is rich and confirms the audience’s preconceptions about the Cleopatra dynasty – there’s eyeliner, large necklaces, bald heads. Josette Simon’s Cleopatra doesn’t wear a beard, but has the gravitas and might that can’t help but make one recall Elizabeth I’s battle cry “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king!”. Yet, there is a girlishness to Simon’s Egyptian Queen: she toys with Antony (eventually proving deadly), she’s a tease, she’s a trickster, she play-acts, she’s sexual. Altogether, Simon’s Cleopatra doesn’t work for me – there’s too much there with no focus. Her language has too much weight whilst her performance is too light. It’s messy.
Mark Antony, meanwhile, is a brute. His close friend, Enobarbus, is portrayed with Eastenders zeal by the excellent Andrew Woodall, the violent cockney with powerful insights. Some of Enobarbus’ lines are flooring in their perceptiveness – made more so by Woodall’s rough delivery. But, of all the performances, it is Ben Allen as the young Octavius Caesar who shines. A God: and yet cripplingly, disarmingly human. Allen’s nuanced delivery is flawless. He’s prone to terrifying outbursts of anger; he’s a loose cannon, and the Romans know it. He exudes a schoolboy arrogance, parading around with grapes, languishing on Cleopatra’s throne, shouting petulantly at his enemies. But he deeply loves his sister, and even loves Mark Antony, in a way. He’s brutal, but he’s ultimately sympathetic. And that’s Allen’s victory. He cries. His time on the stage is spent in almost perpetual insecurity, battling with the power of his position and his trembling humanity. It’s radiant and moving.
The score – Birmingham singer-songwriter Laura Mvula’s design – is fantastic. It pulses through the theatre, a sonorous meeting of Egypt and dance music. The choreography, too, is superb. The opening sequence, in which the actors contort themselves into various shapes and lift each other and throw each other like acrobats, is a spectacle, and a lovely reminder of the entertainment value of the theatre. And the moving set pieces emerging from the floor (also featured in Julius Caesar) are beautifully used, particularly in the last scene.
I have a qualm with the comedy which, occasionally, feels at odds with the scene. After Antony’s death, his body being lugged up by two metres on the end of a scarf feels too much like an excerpt of ‘Carry On Cleo’. Again, Simon’s Cleopatra feels wrong in her humour, not tragic. However, the realism in Antony’s death is rightly revolting – and Eros’ death is so upsetting it’s scream-at-the-stage worthy.
Overall, Antony and Cleopatra is a production with elements like glittering pearls, clear and perfect. Along with that, some small elements are more leaden, clunky and dull. The pearls make it more than worthwhile, and the lead doesn’t ruin anything. It’s imperfect, but with glimmers of perfection.
Julius Caesar, taking place before Antony and Cleopatra, could not be more different. We are worlds away from Egypt’s opulent monarchy, and we are living within the pillars of Rome’s crisp democracy. This is a land of clean togas and flawless white marble and, in total opposition, the slaughter of bulls and, of course, of Caesars. The sound design and the floodlight-esque lighting rig at the back of the stage all create an air of football hooligan-ism to the masses’ adorations and riots.
The murder of Caesar is, of course, the real blood and soul of this production. As bloody as you wish it, Caesar’s friends turn on him to gratifyingly gory results. Whether Team Caesar or Team Brutus, it is hard not to feel a sense of thrill at the man’s grisly demise. However, when James Corrigan enters as Mark Antony, that thrill mellows into a guilt. Corrigan is a class act, playing Antony as an almost sneer-worthy political mind, but he’s respected by the audience, as he’s clever. He’s charismatic, he’s attractive, he’s cheer-worthy. He roars his soliloquies when alone and covered in the blood of his friend but, when in public (made larger by the auditorium lights remaining on), he’s clear-headed and smooth. In contrast, the lovely Alex Waldmann’s Brutus just tries so hard to be an orator, but Waldmann brings out the pointlessness of Brutus’ words, his misjudgements, to great effect. Martin Hutson is a lean, scrappy Cassius, at fever-pitch, but able to evoke the real tragedy of the character.
The scene in which Lucius sings to his master, Brutus, is mesmeric. It sticks with you: haunting and heartbreaking. Watching Brutus fall apart at the tune is difficult, and then his desperation when, only moments later, his past comes back to haunt him – literally, in the form of Caesar’s ghost. It is hard not to feel sympathetic towards Brutus, whose genuine endeavour into the good of Rome cripples him.
Julius Caesar hits the nails that Antony and Cleopatra occasionally missed. It’s clear, it’s straight-forward, it’s moving and diverting and visceral. It’s stunning.
If the RSC can keep up the quality of its first two Roman plays, we certainly are in for a bloody but disarming treat.