The Royal Shakespeare Company at the Park Avenue Armory on Sunday, August 7, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.
All the best parts of Julius Caesar happen before intermission, which generally falls after Mark Antony’s rabble-rousing public address. The conspiracy, the assassination, the dueling eulogies—that’s all over and done with, leaving only the frenzied descriptions of off-stage battles and the inevitable suicides. It is, I suppose, a tribute to director Lucy Bailey that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of the play retains some energy through what sometimes feels like a very extended denouement. I can never muster much sympathy for Brutus, but this time I at least felt some of the drama.
For directing a stage work, Bailey relies relatively little on the actors. Her partner in mood-setting and tension-building is instead William Dudley, the set and video designer. The rear of the stage is a set of screens that can project a single large image or a collection of smaller ones as they rotate to allow entrances and exits from the back. This could have been unbearably cheesy, but Dudley manages to sidestep that, creating dark, portentous images (the Capitoline Wolf against a dark bloodred backdrop sticks in my head) and the illusion of violent crowds and columns of soldiers.
All this is in service of a particularly cynical vision of the coup that toppled Julius Caesar. Brutus (Sam Troughton) is a patsy at best, goaded against his better instincts by an openly Machiavellian Cassius (John Mackay) and an oily Casca (Oliver Ryan), and Mark Antony (Darrel D’Silva) seems to take a sly pleasure in provoking the Roman people to riot against his enemies. There are no good guys or bad guys, just a bunch of ruthless, shortsighted politicians—including the vain Julius Caesar (Greg Hicks)—of varying degrees of competency.
Brutus means well, I suppose, though what does that matter if he’s so foolishly reckless as to participate in a bloody coup with neither a plan to stabilize the city in its aftermath nor the stomach to combat the dissenters he’s bound to provoke with such an action? As Troughton plays him, he’s not just cerebral but also rather cold, detached, hard to really like, and in a chance character touch, he walks with a pronounced limp and a cane. (The actor badly injured his knee playing Romeo—a part he’s now had to cede to Dyfan Dwyfor.) That physical limitation wasn’t a deliberate choice, of course, but it works surprisingly well for the character, underlining the contrast between the academic Brutus and the vigorous, burly Mark Antony.
As for Mark Antony, D’Silva brings some chilling notes to the character. We don’t doubt his love and respect for Caesar, but at the same time, he’s perfectly happy to capitalize on the man’s death for his own aims, coolly misleading and manipulating Brutus into allowing him to speak to the people and then gleefully inciting them to rage and violence. He’s not a good man.
But then who on stage really is? All the politicians are unscrupulous or incompetent—sometimes both—and the citizens they lead are credulous and savage. The conclusion of this Julius Caesar doesn’t feel tragic so much as pathetically inevitable. Bailey opens the play with a ferocious fight to the death between a feral Romulus and Remus; the clear implication is that we haven’t truly advanced much past that barbarity.