I have just returned from seeing Julius Caesar at the fabulous Globe on the South Bank. I cannot believe I have never been there before but I left London before it was built. It was wonderful to see the audience watching the play in something like the kind of environment in which it would have been performed, and reminded me how important it is for young people to acknowledge where the plays were performed in order to understand and fully appreciate them. However I have to say that I was disappointed at the level of some of the actors, and more particularly, the direction.
Despite having some technically strong actors ( and some appallingly weak ones) , the production failed, for me at least. there was no real attempt to tell the story scene by scene, and speed and pace are a cheap substitute for real tension. Of course these are connected, and pace is vital, but tense moments of conflict and debate and some real character conflicts and transformations were what was required. The actors seemed to be encouraged by director Dominic Dromgoole to play the whole thing at lightning speed with no moments for pause, as if they were afraid that if they stopped speaking the whole edifice would crumble. When Brutus took a big pause during the oration it was quite clear that a few more pauses would have been completely acceptable and the actors and the story would not have vanished in a puff of smoke. I felt they needed to trust the play and the audience more .
A few sections sparkled, especially the group work which was strong and powerful around two rather too weak orations. Interestingly though, I felt that when the crowd actors came onto the stage to hear the will and see Caesar’s body more closely, they instantly forgot that the audience was part of them, and became rather less powerful . This made me feel that the actors and director had no real understanding of what that relationship might have been.
Another moment that worked for me was the moment after the murder when the conspirators collected themselves and spoke of how many times Caesar’s murder would be enacted. This had an amazing resonance in this space which actually moved me to tears for a moment. This had less to do with the acting than with the fact it was acted out in this theatre which gave its audience a strong role as co- conspirators in the tragedy. Our presence reminded us , both that Caesar’s murðer was being acted out as a play, but also that, as dictator after dictator is assassinated in the real world over the centuries, that this kind of assassination is a very hit and miss affair when it comes to creating a more just society. It felt like we were witnesses to a tragedy humanity enacts over and over again. Sublime.
Overall though ,the actors played fast and flatly with no real struggle or argument . Brutus , Tom McKay, played all on one level with no sense of the struggle of the role, despite giving ‘ it must be by his ðeath’ directly to The audience but without the real questioning of them and using the audience as an acting partner. This opportunity to explore the character’s dilemma was simply thrown away. The journey of Brutus it seems to me shows the audience how a good man can justify an assassination and put his name to something he finds questionable. If the actor does not do that, and there are many ways to do it, he has not fulfilled the role. Cassius, played by Anthony Howell, ranged around the stage with some focus to the text, but for me not enough passion. He I suspect would have made a much better Brutus. Caesar, George Irving, was not played as an egotist but as a victim just waiting to be murdered, with no sense of power or danger. The actor was so all over the place I wondered whether he was not actually feeling unwell. So the many springs of the play on which it depends, were not really in evidence.
It appeared that the actors worked on an intellectual level only, and seemed to ignore the imagery as an encumbrance rather than something that is giving real tangible multi layered psychology and atmosphere to the characters and themes. The characters talk of ‘the rheumy and unpurged air,’ when there was no feel or evidence this fetid air is filling the stage. And this dank atmosphere of sickness is a tangible and real thing which is either something created by the conspirators actions or by the tyranny of Caesar, and by the actual damp night.
When the language and acting have to do everything, the one thing the actors have to bring on to the stage is atmosphere, both realistic , a storm, a garden, a public place ( easy that) and palpable emotional ones….. Secrecy, suspicion, chaos, repression. It is as important as the scene itself, as Michael Chekhov wrote ‘ the general atmosphere is the oxygen of the performance .’ With no lighting, no sound other than music, no scenery, then bringing on this atmosphere is crucial. And ironically, it is not hard to do. It is not hard for actors to bring on an atmosphere of disease and dampness and secrecy if some attention has been put on this in the rehearsal.
It was to me somewhat ironic that a production that strived for ‘authenticity’ of costume and setting appeared to make no real attempt to connect with the language on anything other than an intellectual level, when one imagines it would have been experienced more deeply and emotionally as well.