The acclaimed Julius Caesar directed by Gregory Doran for the RSC has already been discussed on this blog, but now, happily, the production has been released on DVD. Julius Caesar represents the exciting next phase in the RSC’s work with Illuminations, the production company that has already brought Greg’s Macbeth and Hamlet to DVD. For this production, rather than taking an existing stage production into a studio and recreating a hybridised stage-to-TV adaptation, two different versions were produced simultaneously, one playing on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage and transferring to London, and the other created specifically for television.
This, the television version, continue to incorporate key scenes from the stage production, filmed live at the RST, but has a life and intensity all of its own.The difference to standard stage-to-screen adaptations is immediately apparent in the distinction between the ‘theatrical’ and ‘filmic’ scenes. Here, theatrical blocking is almost entirely eschewed in place of four-sided rooms and a camera that finds itself frequently looking over shoulders, darting back and froth between actors and scarpering out of the way of bursts of violence. With so much of the film played in extremely close and cramped quarters, the strength is the emergence of Paterson Joseph’s subtle performance as Brutus. The complexities of this troubled leader, always aware but increasingly lost in a world behind his eyes, are laid bare in high-definition, and the fear that enters into him at the moment of Caesar’s ghost appearing in a lantern is all the more extraordinary by comparison, his eyes widening behind eyeglasses that continue to show the reflection of the gently moving corpse obscured by the flame.
The found locations work well, though the lack of external shots leaves one in no doubt that it is an English landscape behind the translucent windows. This is not really the point, though – the theatricality of even the location scenes is part of the point as these actors move away from the shouts of the RST and Brutus and Cassius pull Casca into a communal toilet that could very possibly be the RSC’s backstage loos. The standout sequence, however, remains the murder of Cinna the Poet. Shot on shaky camcorders and with a fast-paced, spontaneously performed arc that sees a slightly comedic lynch mob become a furious vengeance group on hearing his name. The evocation of South African necklacking in Cinna’s death reminds us that this ‘Africa’ is generalised, a move that has the positives of avoiding easy parallels but falls into the dangerous trap of homogenising the practices of a very diverse continent into a singular ‘Africa’. Nonetheless, the invented state clearly has a specificity all of its own, a state ruled by guns and a propaganda machine but influenced by the mythical rites of the terrifying Soothsayer and his kin.
Perhaps unusually for Caesar, and in direct contradiction of the RSC publicity blurb that states this is a ‘fast-moving’ production, the beauty of this film is its careful, ponderous pace. This is notable particularly in an early moment where Caesar stops to announce to the room, and in full hearing of his target, that he should beware of Cassius. The camera lingers on Cassius, stoic and in profile, as he endures Jeffery Kissoon’s sneers and the condescending smile of Ray Fearon’s Antony. The intimacy of action and reaction yields fascinating stories in the supporting cast, and Ann Ogbomo’s Calpurnia in particular stands out, her shaking fear compelling the camera’s attention and undermining the rather more distant and obtuse Caesar. The bickering between the soldiers who capture the fake Brutus, the whispered conversations in quiet corridors between Cassius and Brutus and the careful manipulation of Caesar by Decius Brutus typify the close, familiar interventions made possible by an intuitive direction that composes shots carefully and intervenes strategically to tell its story without ever feeling manipulative or exclusionary in the way that, say, the NT Live cameras do.
There are disappointments. The murder of Caesar on an abandoned escalator feels like a private act, removed from the public contexts that make sense of the murderers’ actions in the immediate aftermath, and is only partially redeemed by Fearon’s roaring of ‘Cry havoc!’ to the lights streaming down from the top of the escalator. Elsewhere the abandoned locations (particularly during the civil war of the final acts) speak to a grittiness and impoverishment that make the scrap for power seem interestingly petty and dirty, but the murder of Caesar feels like an anticlimax. The live scenes at the RST are full of bustle and noise, but are so dimly lit by the stage lights that their impact feels frustratingly incomplete. Where they succeed is in the expert choreography of the crowd, the sense of danger and potential riot, but one is left wishing one could experience it live.
In some senses, though, the relative disappointments of the (short) theatrical scenes bring home the excellent work done in the filmic scenes. Particularly the closing battle scenes, so often a failure on stage, become a series of tightly constructed vignettes where the emotional collapse of Brutus comes into close focus even as the battle is fought in stairwells and dilapidated rooms. The privilege of the camera is to stay close on the determined Lucius’ face as he holds his dagger for Brutus, and then turn to Brutus as the dagger enters him, catching his eye for a moment before he falls backwards out of shot in slow motion. The conclusion begins in a stairwell, as private and anticlimactic as Caesar’s own death, but in the final moments suddenly switches back to the Courtyard stage, the private moment refigured as a public statement in Octavius’ final words.
The DVD extras are concentrated into a lengthy documentary which, pleasingly, is genuinely insightful about the production process, the rehearsal process and the thinking behind interpretive decisions. From the designer talking about the attempt to create a ‘backstage stadium’ feel to the key scenes, to Doran explaining his desire to avoid a setting that too closely evoked Nigeria, to the man behind the curtain (producer John Wyver) explaining key decisions, all of the key players are filmed. The Arab Spring, which dominated the media during the production’s preparation process, invoked a mood that influenced the production but which the creative team were cautious about wanting to reference explicitly, aware rather of the more universal resonances than making a specific political point. Paterson Joseph and Cyril Nri are particularly fascinating on their creation of the deep platonic love between Brutus and Cassius, and Joseph is surprisingly candid about Doran’s rehearsal process and his frustrations and discoveries in round-the-table readings. The cast talk frankly about the difficulties of rehearsing two different versions simultaneously, but also (perhaps unsurprisingly) end up praising a process that allowed them to explore these characters in a depth they had not experienced before. The only thing that would have made it a perfect package would have been the inclusion of the filmed version of I, Cinna the Poet as an extra, the accompanying one-man play that tells the story of Cinna the Poet and was broadcast to schools. This play extended the excellent work of the Caesar project a stage further by expanding on one of its minor characters and offering a different demographic a way into the production, and it is a shame that there isn’t the opportunity to view the two together. That’s my greed speaking though, as what we instead have is a wonderful resource for enthusiasts, students and teachers that pairs an intimate, innovative and beautifully shot Caesar with a documentary that raises the bar for other producers of stage-to-screen adaptations.
Many thanks to Illuminations for providing this review copy. Available now at the RSC shop!