Blood is traditionally not shed in Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar until the conspirators collectively stab Caesar at the Senate. But in Lucy Bailey’s excessively violent production, animalistic warfare is displayed from the very beginning.
As an opening sequence, Bailey reaches all the way back to the founding of Rome. She shows Romulus and Remus wrestling to the death in front of an image of the Capitoline Wolf, the famous Bronze sculpture of them suckling off their wolf mother as children.
Of the five plays being presented this summer by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Park Avenue Armory, Julius Caesar is the least often performed. Even if Bailey’s visceral touches often overwhelm the text, this production is quite entertaining and considerably better than the 2005 Broadway revival starring Denzel Washington.
Bailey treats the play as if it were an action thriller or gruesome video game. She utilizes computer graphics projected against a widescreen on the back wall, conjuring massive crowds of plebeians and scenes of stormy nights and Rome on fire. Likewise, the band blasts their horns to produce a jarring effect.
As Brutus, Sam Troughton stresses the meditative and sensitive qualities that ultimately prove to be the character’s tragic flaws. Since Troughton was injured a few weeks ago during a matinee of Romeo & Juliet, he incorporates a cane into his performance that actually emphasizes Brutus’ frailty.
Greg Hicks brings the same reckless self-love and impatience that he showed as King Lear to his portrayal of Julius Caesar. In a very cool touch, Hicks returns at the very end as a ghostly presence to stab Brutus himself.
Darrell D’Silva reinvents Mark Anthony as a coarse, drunken and overweight fraternity kingpin. It’s hard to believe that a John Belushi lookalike would have the oratory powers to make the crowds turn against Brutus and the other conspirators. But then again, this is an Anthony with an understanding of the people and what turns them on.
As Cassius, John Mackay convincingly displays the character’s lean and hungry look and jealousy of Caesar. Hannah Young stands out in the often-sidelined role of Portia, Brutus’ neglected wife, by imbuing her with an all-consuming need for attention. Oliver Ryan also shines as Casca, another one of the senators, by being the most openly sleazy of the lot.