Sunday, 17 May 2009

Romans in the gloaming

To Stratford for the second public performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production of William Shakespeare's ever-popular toga-tearer Julius Caesar.

As we enter the auditorium two mud-and-blood-encrusted actors are on stage, exhaustedly stalking each other with the occasional grunt-and-grapple engagement. Then, as the play begins, one pins his rival to the floor and despatches him - with a bite to the neck. Nice.

The show is all of a piece with this initial image. Director Lucy Bailey and her design team conjure up a far-from sunny ancient Italy, where an elegant civilisation seems constantly on the brink of bloody anarchy.

The action is accompanied by a high-volume percussive soundtrack and a series of huge projected images, sadly not clearly visible from our side of the thrust stage.

That fine actor Greg Hicks, in the title role, brilliantly suggests the blinkered self-admiration that has fuelled the seemingly so-reasonable conspiracy hatched by the cool-headed Cassius (excellent John Mackay) and his fellow plotters.

Caesar's line 'Let me have men about me that are fat ... Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much' will probably get laughs. Next to the spectral Hicks, the slender Mackay looks positively chubby.

I guess the play's most challenging role is that of the thoughtful, troubled Brutus (Sam Troughton, above), whose journey charts the terrifying consequences of a decision to do a bad thing for a good reason.

As Mark Antony, the well-fleshed Darren D'Silva, seizes his 'Friends, Romans and countrymen' opportunity with relish, the fickle populace duly u-turning in response to his rhetoric.

With luck, the director will rethink the distracting repertoire of stylised jerk-and-twitch movements assigned to the Roman citizenry.

Criticisms? Shouty moments (plenty of these) are punctuated by occasional passages where one wants to call, 'Speak up, lads.' With luck, these variations in dynamics will even out as the performers settle in to their roles.

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