I’ve not yet had a chance to see the RSC’s new production of Julius Caesar, directed by Gregory Doran and currently playing in Stratford. The concept behind the production is fascinating, if not without its problems – an all-black British cast, performing the play as set in an unnamed modern African state. In a year characterised by the welcoming of other nations to the UK with their own versions of Shakespeare, I have my reservations about a British company “doing” Africa, particularly in a form that elides continental difference with a range of aspects. These are reservations rather than deep-rooted complaints, but worth flagging.
The design of this televised version on BBC4 was fascinating. Rather than film the stage play from live performance, the extraordinary digital theatre company Illuminations (who have previously worked with the RSC on a range of productions, including Doran’s own Hamlet) began in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on the thrust stage, but then moved to a range of interior locations. In a rundown world of brick corridors, flamelit rooms and clay earth floors, a sense of claustrophobic heat was created that stoked a growing sense of pressure as the film moved towards its inevitable mid-point climax. The decision to create a version of a production geared specifically for film alongside – rather than subsequent to – the theatrical production is an innovative one, finding a fascinatingly different medium for the story that gave greater priority to the environment of the play and to the psychologising of characters.
What the locations did lack was a sense of the bustle of the city. An opening carnival began the production in vibrant mood, with revellers (bolstered by a crowd of extras) singing and dancing in praise of Caesar, evoking African carnivals. The fullness of this section, set on a live stage surrounded by a typical RSC audience, allowed noise and colour to dominate from the start, creating a volatile and dangerous world in which revelers and police could talk back to one another and a spirit of celebration could barely be contained. Moving to the ‘real’ locations, the mood changed significantly. Large spaces dwarved the actors, who increasingly appeared in relative isolation, whispering in echoing chambers or losing themselves down winding back corridors.
This lost something in an impression of a busy public world; the conspirators needed little extra room in order to whisper conspiratorially, and the danger of being overheard was non-existent. In this sparsely populated world, the conspirators lacked pressure. This was most notable in the staging of the assassination, performed on a pair of escalators in what appeared to be a deserted palace. Rome itself appeared to be dead already, and its rulers acting out the dying breaths of an empire. What we gained, in this scene in particular, was something far bloodier than possible onstage – the noises of the daggers plunging into Caesar’s body were unpleasantly fleshy.
The camerawork was strongest, instead, in the extreme close-ups, particularly in the lingering focus on the face of Patterson Joseph’s Brutus. Particularly as Brutus moved around his open-plan home, waiting for the conspirators to arrive and reading the parchments that had been passed into the house, he whispered his words to himself, internalising his conflict and working through his self-justification with direct reference to the camera, his confidante. This allowed the viewer a route into an otherwise calculating Brutus, who in public scenes disappeared behind his own persona, and presented a cold, immovable front among the other conspirators, including the passionate Cassius (Cyril Nri). Even moments of apparent exterior engagement could be made personal; Caesar’s ghost appeared as a reflection in his lamp, allowing the production to maintain ambiguity over the extent to which the ghost was real or simply a manifestation of Brutus’ guilt.
Similarly, the appearance of Ray Fearon’s Antony after the assassination was emphasised as a turning point; appearing silhouetted and blurred, he slowly emerged into focus and an ominous underscore of music (a rare use of non-diegetic sound) accompanied his unspoken (but heard by the audience) misgivings as he appraoched the scene. Fearon, however, utilised the full dynamic range offered by the camera. Leaning over Caesar’s body, abandoned on the escalator, his voice rose to a roar as he faced up into an overhead light.
The action returned to the RST stage for the orations scene, where again the use of extras in a much more confined space created an energy that elevated the performances. Fearon choreographed the crowd masterfully, screaming for attention over the chaotic shouting and whipping the crowd into a fervour. It was in this scene, particularly, that the setting lent itself well to the play; without the veneer of Roman civility, Doran was able to present more clearly the cross-purpose shouting, the unbridled energy of the mob that Antony needed to direct rather than create, and the emotional outpouring that accompanied the unveiling of Caesar’s body.
In another stylistic shift, the beginnings of the war were imagined as gang violence, partially recorded on camera phones in an instance of ‘happy slapping’. Cinna the Poet was bound in a tyre, doused in petrol and set on fire; while Octavius and Antony’s prisoners were bagged and shot in the head as the newly formed triumvirate haggled over lives. Again, there was a problem in that these scenes – moving away from the lively noise of the stage – were simply quieter, and the murder of Cinna happened too calmly to keep up the momentum of the riled crowd. Far better was the emotional argument between Cassius and Brutus in the latter’s tent, particularly as Cassius raised his robe and demanded Brutus kill him, to Brutus’s shock and disgust. These scenes of intimacy were the production’s strength throughout, including in the early meeting of the lead conspirators with Joseph Mydell’s Casca in a men’s washroom, where the older man lingered over his insinuations and innuendos as he washed his hands and looked pointedly at Brutus and Cassius in turn.
The closing scenes saw the war played out in small encounters in stairwells, corridors and dead ends, and again a relative lack of ambient noise meant that it was hard to get a sense of a full scale war taking place. In the close-ups of deaths, of Antony and Octavius (Ivanno Jeremiah) walking down corridors already bristling with tension, and in the tears of Brutus as he looked down at his dead soldiers, the medium succeeded rather at evoking the personal struggle of war.
For the closing moment, the final rally of the people, Antony emerged one last time onto the main RST stage. What came clear throughout this film is that, perhaps oddly, it was the more limited environment of the live theatrical production that best evoked the clamour, noise and heat of the charged African political setting. In the push to realise it more literally, the play became far more of a psychological drama at the expense of a sense of the larger picture. Nonetheless, it’s a fantastic experiment and one I hope the RSC repeats in future years; to create something specifically geared to film that complements a theatrical production is a bold endeavour that respects the advantages and possibilities of the different media, and provided a fascinating platform for a worthwhile production.