I lose track of the number of mediocre productions of Julius Caesar – with its ever-present possibility of being the dullest play in the Shakespearean canon – I have endured at the RSC. This new one isn’t mediocre as such, not least because it contains verse-speaking of exemplary clarity and would prove a perfect starter Shakespeare for students, but it certainly isn’t in the slightest bit exciting. A running time of more than three hours is also a very silly move, as this drama can easily be done in a nippy two interval-free hours.
At its best, what the play should offer is a sense of hurtling momentum, as the conspirators plan their campaign and act on it. Oddly, there is absolutely no sense of urgency from director Angus Jackson. The conspirators coalesce and plot so painfully slowly that we worry they might never get around to it at all. This drama inevitably runs out of steam once Caesar has been toppled and Antony has given his stirring oration to the Roman masses, but in an unusual turn of events it’s the second half now that has more oomph. Even so, it’s still not noticeably urgent.
As well as being the director here, Jackson is also the season director of the RSC’s ambitious new Rome strand (comprising this piece, Antony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, and Coriolanus over a seven-month period), and maybe that expansive sense of time and space is what has given rise to such a stately pace. It’s certainly valuable – and rare – to be able to watch the narrative of the end of the Roman Republic unfold via matinee and evening helpings of JC and A and C on the same day. But Jackson, who was responsible for one of the RSC’s best shows of 2016 in the sharp and skilful Don Quixote, could usefully liven things up.
Robert Innes Hopkins’ set has a sweeping grandeur to it evocative of the Roman epics of Hollywood past, and, not always a given, it easily occupies the imposing space of Stratford’s biggest theatre. The choice of traditional dress fits seamlessly with this. Martin Hutson’s uncompromising Cassius very much has a "lean and hungry look" and suggests a man haunted by the spectre of tyranny from Andrew Woodall’s grandiose Caesar. Brutus is played by the always-energetic Alex Waldmann, who unfortunately makes him rather too jocular and chummy and, at times, eerily reminiscent of a chipmunk. What’s missing from this portrayal is a vital and anchoring sense of gravitas.
What’s disconcerting about this production is its sense of vacuum-packed airlessness. If there are modern parallels to be drawn, about rabble-rousing and mass oratory, we are very much left to draw them ourselves, if we can muster the energy. James Corrigan makes this Mark Antony a notably crafty orator, but the energy generated by his speech is not sustained. Public opinion is proven to be fickle, and then we move slowly on. With "slowly" always being the operative word.