Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon – until 9 September 2017
The trumpet sounds for the RSC’s Roman season, the mob is rowdily onstage, and the turbulent politics of 44 BC are reflected through the prism of Shakespeare’s 1599 England to throw light forward onto our own age. Dictatorships, depositions and painful realignments are always with us. Angus Jackson’s thoughtful production is visually classical: togas and breastplates, columns and flickering braziers and a tense atmospheric soundscape by Mira Calix and Carolyn Downing. But the careful, colloquial, muscular handling of the text by Jackson’s cast brings the play’s moralities and relationships harshly close, vivid and often thrilling. Too-famous lines emerge new, hard-edge and even shocking. Characters emerge individual and recognizable, and there is a timeless, sad grainy familiarity in the play’s political shape – conspiracy, assassination and messy, conflicted consequences.
Martin Hutson’s Cassius is particularly fascinating, catching the character’s lean hungry hysteria from the start as he begins to woo Alex Waldmann’s decent worried Brutus into the conspiracy gently , then explodes into passionate fury; his second-act tantrum in Brutus’ tent is nicely all of a piece with every appearance. Caesar himself, in this production, is made a more obvious swaggerer than in the last RSC production with Greg Hicks: Andrew Woodall giving him a rather Trumpish self-certainty from the start, which nicely justifies the chief conspirators’ anxiety. Brutus’ early hesitancy is sharply caught, not least in a particularly touching scene with his wife (the women don’t get much of a look-in in this play, but Hannah Morrish makes a striking Portia). Later, in the military scenes, Brutus’ bereaved despair is the more powerful for having glimpsed the reality of his marriage.
Yet most arresting of all is James Corrigan’s black-browed, faintly satanic Mark Antony . After the big brutal moment (there’s a sign outside warning us about the stabbing, as if we hadn’t guessed) Corrigan’s honest-john handshakes with the killers and faux humility before Brutus do little to prepare us for his surge of focused anger beside the corpse. As for the funeral oration, the pivot of the play, I have never heard its wickedly brilliant artfulness done with such cynical care. Corrigan never, for a minute, lets us be entirely certain of Mark Antony’s motives, and you have to love that. Brutus in comparison is a clear pool, his private griefs and resigned ending quietly moving.
The boy servant Lucius, by the way, meets such a sharp and unexpected ending in the brutality of the ending that the audience gasps in horror. Young Samuel Littell did the press night, a professional debut likeable and tuneful in the moody pre-battle scene. We were all more than relieved to see the little lad back at the curtain call.