“Julius Caesar” at The Roundhouse

In a week when political assassination is once more in the news, Julius Caesar might seem more relevant to a contemporary audience than ever. The RSC’s production at The Roundhouse could never presage such current events, but the evening gives us plenty to think about. Director Lucy Bailey thrills by her engagement with history.

Lucy Bailey’s Rome is a bloody place. In the opening scene we see Romulus and Remus wrestling to the death – a bloodlust is the city’s heritage from its founders. Working with designer William Dudley and inspired by the recent Rome TV show, Bailey intelligently toys with our notions of the Romans as civilised. Video projections increase the stage presence of the Plebeians (a character in their own right) to great effect – this is a dangerous mob that rules the Empire on a whim.

Greg Hicks is a natural Caesar. Even eclectically garbed as some kind of generic Barbarian, he is commanding enough to cast a necessary shadow over the play. The evening’s highlight is Darrell D’Silva’s Mark Antony. A “masker and a reveller”, he seems drunk on grief and then violence. Reminiscent of Oliver Reed, it is a captivating performance that will make you want to see him reprise the role in Antony and Cleopatra, also part of this year’s season.

However, Julius Caesar is really the story of Brutus and Cassius. Here Brutus (Sam Troughton) is something like a monk; he is dressed like one and even gestures a benediction in a performance that invokes the play’s religious context. To bring complexity to their coalition, John Mackay attempts to make Cassius more than just a Machiavellian figure. Both are interesting ideas and yet, while there are moments of moving intimacy between the conspirators, both strategies fail to hold interest.

All the cast of Julius Caesar are martial. The characters are at home in Bailey’s world and her direction makes sense of the play’s long combat scenes, invariably presented with clarity and dynamism. Yet they disappoint, and we are hard pushed to share the opinion that Brutus was the “noblest Roman of them all”. What should be his tragedy may interest us but ultimately fails to move us emotionally.

Julius Caesar plays in rep until 5 February 2011

www.rsc.org.uk

Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Written 11 January 2011 for The London Magazine

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