FringeReview UK 2017
The overarching virtue of Angus Jackson’s Rome season is its clarity. Robert Innes Hopkins designs a traditional capitol edge-on in the background.
Tim Mitchell and Caroline Burrell’s visible stadium lighting suggests it’s a film-set. Mira Calix’s music, jazzy, lower-key than elsewhere, flirts with film idioms and the crash of war filtered through Carolyn Downing’s management of the Barbican’s tricky sound.
A lean and hungry Julius Caesar stalks onwards from the conspiracy serried against a new coronation, something banned nearly five centuries earlier. If we’re shuddering at the prospect of presidents-for-life both east and west, this production never points up its relevance but bequeaths you its ferocity, its diseases, its feral warning. In a fine cast there’s two outstanding performances, one of them as definitive as it gets.
The overarching virtue of Angus Jackson’s Rome season is its clarity, its scrupulous unfolding, the kicks of scrabbling physical details as lesser figures in that orchard conspiracy bicker and almost at the outset fissure. This and the subsequent Antony and Cleopatra depart from the modern-dress Coriolanus (which as a production came later), flaunting a retro-classic look. Robert Innes Hopkins designs a traditional capitol edge-on in the background. It’s not what you expect. With little fuss on a few plinths rising through the floor, a tent-drape near Philippi, the clean edges of this narrative ring, edged with its filth and nastiness, the snapped neck of a child a shocking new detail.
Tim Mitchell and Caroline Burrell’s visible stadium lighting suggests curiously that it’s a film-set: it otherwise slices through tenebrous glooms and Rome’s lucid intervals with again a classic reversion. Mira Calix’s music, jazzy, lower-key than elsewhere, flirts with film idioms and the crash of war filtered through Carolyn Downing’s management of the Barbican’s tricky sound. There’s a beautifully-poised song, aching in retrospect.
Cassius should never overbear his Brutus, but Martin Hutson’s quivering ambiguity bespeaks the danger Andrew Woodall’s equally lean Caesar recognizes: it’s a distorting mirror of self-recognition and Hutson’s the defining Cassius of our times. Woodall’s rectilinear aquiline versus the slightest stoop where the furrowed conspirator seems ready to charge. But Hutson’s Cassius holds back, uncertain of everything, even Brutus. It’s said Cassius proposes suicide in every scene he appears in, which isn’t quite true. Hutson’s self-consuming though makes this palpable. In the great confrontation of Act IV, the emotional climax of this production, Alex Waldmann rises superbly to Hutson’s needling fury, Brutus almost stabbing Cassius’ invited neck. There’s also a murderously erotic charge you never see with Portia, Hannah Morrish’s warm, already-suicidal and sidelined portrayal particularly when Cassius-like she slashes her own thigh deeply, a sexually tragic reproach. Yet Brutus already grieves for her living, whilst shocked with his own undertaking; and shivers for her dead.
Waldmann’s softer-grained introverted Brutus is convincingly rounded in its own terms. Despite his nobility Brutus’ intellectual arrogance overbearing Cassius’ far shrewder military proposals suggests a weak core. He presently lacks though that resource of Hutson’s, a voice ringing over the wastes.
It’s another reason to think of this Rome season as the cradle of emerging talent. Some establish themselves quickly. Vocal distinction – that bugbear complaint – is all that’s needed: the rationale, story-telling clarity, production and conception here fall resonantly into place.
Woodall’s Caesar is a column of delivery, adamantine in vocal command, all verticals. Shakespeare’s Caesar mixes shrewdness to a degree that makes it even more incomprehensible at times that he doesn’t follow his own warnings, let alone others. Woodall convinces us that Shakespeare’s rhetorical Caesar believes his own myths more fatally than Cassius and Brutus doubt theirs. Kristin Atherton’s youthful Calphurnia twists agonies near him and convincingly nudges a place no-one else can.
James Corrigan’s Mark Antony is like Hutson’s Cassius, very dangerous. At a key point apparently reconciled to the assassins he kisses Cassius; just Cassius. Corrigan’s mafiosi gesture marks death, though Cassius cheats him. Corrigan doesn’t quite reach vocal fury in ‘cry havoc!’ over Caesar’s dead body; but his politic speech to the crowd, ferocious in tricksy delivery, the way he tears up Caesar’s imagined will when he’s done with flaunting it, and most chillingly snapping the neck of Brutus’ page, render him a political animal the equal of Jon Tarcy’s peevishly lean Octavian.
Tom McCall’s laddish Casca, Marcello Walton’s almost too-impressive Lepidus (then he was a general), Dharmsh Patel’s Messala and Decius Brutus, Luke McGregor’s affecting Strato – together with nearly all the cast impress, to an extent it’s almost unfair to single these out.
Jackson’s backgrounding of current events is shrewd too: by suggesting film-sets with subtle obliquity he backs us into the glare of a Trump stadium, those overarching lights playing on all of us. It’s a superb conception, in some respects outstanding; in one, definitive.