Et Tu, Bridge?

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (Director: Nicholas Hytner, Br/dge Theatre)

Memory is a curious thing.

I’d wanted to see Ben Wishaw in Julius Caesar, even though I regarded it as a dull play, but I assumed that by the time I got round to booking the tickets, sat in my parents’ living room with Dad shortly before Christmas, I’d be too late.

And I thought it dull having seen – I thought – a production of it at Leicester Haymarket, directed by John Dexter and starring John Duttine and Tim Pigott-Smith. Digging around online, the Leicester Haymarket production seems to have been in Autumn 1988, after I’d left for college, and had a different cast. There was a touring production with Duttine and Pigott-Smith – might I have seen that at Nottingham – or Hull New Theatre or even (I really think not) at Manchester?

So here we have Wishaw as Brutus, David Morrissey as Mark Antony, David Calder as Julius Caesar and Michelle Fairley as a regendered Cassius. I do remember seeing Calder in the audience for King John in the much-missed t’Other Place at Stratford – the year after Star Cops.

For the second production at The Bridge, Nicholas Hytner has decided not only to go for an in-the-round format (which I find I prefer) but also a promenade performance (which is a little bit eek). The audiences are chivvied and herded around, as portions of the floor rise and fall to offer platforms and stages. Of course, on one level this is showing off about what this space can do – after the traditional rotating set behind proscenium arch at Young Marx — but it also means that the audience is aware of the rest of the audience even more than the typical in-the-round style. As you enter the auditorium, there are concession stands selling beer, nuts, baseball caps and tshirts, and a band strike up a number of rock anthems until they are joined by a track suited Mark Antony. I’m assuming the theatre staff were in character, so it wasn’t a Brechtian move. This was all clearly too much for some – perhaps after an afternoon at the football, I saw a couple of casualties. And of course, this is a play about the crowd.

It doesn’t really like crowds.
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Caesar is declared to be a tyrant, eating into rights and freedoms of the people of Rome, who must be deposed – but he is much liked by the people and seems to speak their language. Donald Trump seems to be the analogue Hytner has in mind, even down to the red baseball cap tossed into the crowd and the drinking of colas. It’s a while since I read the play, but his tyranny seems to be mostly expressed by our contradictory aversion to popular (or populist?) leaders, rather than what we see him do, although when he finally gets to the senate, he is rejecting various requests for clemency. Cassius is the Iago, whispering in the ear of previously loyal Brutus, but her motives seem to be as much envy that Caesar got all the kudos from the recent battles. Brutus, meanwhile, seems to be acting on the idea that autocracy is bad compared to democracy and assumes a rational transition. Morrisey’s northern Mark Antony is able to assume a plain-speaking, I’m not part of the swamp of Rome, orator at Caesar’s funeral, and swiftly sways the crowd against the conspirators.

The people get what they want and it serves them right.

Civil war descends, and we could as well be in Serbia as Italy, with the wreckage of concrete and barbed wire barricades wheeled onto the stage in yet another pure moments of theatre. I’d forgotten how it ends for Brutus (spoilers!) but I did Antony and Cleopatra for A Level and I knew that Octavius Caesar, Mark Antony and Lepidus get to be triumvirates, with Octavius rather ambitious for more. Indeed, by the end of Julius Caesar he is clearly on the make.

As Caesar is absent for much of the first half of the play and only a silent presence for the second, and Mark Antony seems a minor role until the conspiracy is about to be hatched, Wishaw’s Brutus walks away with the play. Is it deference that names the play after Caesar rather than Brutus? Of course, the Henry IV plays are rather more about Hal than the king. Wishaw is the softly spoken intellectual, a Faustus without ambition, neglecting his self-harming wife for his books and seemingly caring more for Cassius. (How do those lines play when both characters are male, I wonder?) I think we see him reading Karl Popper and there’s a biography of Saddam Hussein on his desk, so he knows all about the theory of dictators. He just seems less clear as to what to do after you’ve deposed one.

Historically that may also be the point. In 1599 – which seems to be the currently accepted date – there was an elderly Elizabeth I not quite naming a successor yet (and I’ve just been watching the series on Queen Jane/Lady Jane Grey). The kilometerage of Puritans and Catholics might have varied from the average peasant in the field, but a deposed Elizabeth I would not have ended well. And it seems unlikely Shakespeare could have gotten away with a play about assassination being justifiable. Two years later, the Earl of Essex had organised a performance Richard II at the Globe and by some accounts had seen the parallels herself. And if we look to today’s politics, and rulers that we might not approve of – would the alternatives be any better?

The Bridge, of course, is opposite the Tower of London, palace, armoury and prison, and next to that bastion of democracy, London City Hall, where Red Ken and BoJo once held sway.

In the meantime, this production sweeps you along – it is only two hours long, played without interview, and it does (without ever being dull) feel longer. My prejudice against the play seems misplaced.

Bard Timing

I don’t think I’ve had a love affair with Shakespeare.

To me Marlowe is always THE playwright. Although I’m ashamed to note how few of his plays I have seen live.

There’s someone about the Bard that has always felt overwhelming, too much baggage, too much Other People’s Property. There’s his centrality to English Literature — I don’t think you could do O Level (now GCSE) or A Level without him. He even showed up in my Drama O Level. The Bard seemed to induce in me a critical cringe – how can you say anything new about him? With Marlowe, on the other hand, I can see the way the plays sometimes clank, and the critical editions tend to be more honest about editorial and other interpolations.

It perhaps should be no surprise that my viewing of Shakespeare’s plays in the theatre has been impacted on by set texts. Continue reading →

Out Damned Scot

Macbeth (Julian Kurzel, 2015)

I suspect — because it was my O Level set Shakespeare — that The Scottish Play was the first live Shakespeare I saw; a People Show production, I’m guessing at Nottingham Playhouse, with Bernard Hill and Julie Walters in the chief roles. We imagined, given it was the era of Boys from the Blackstuff that they’d play to their accents — The Scouse Play if you will — but it was played straight. Possibly even Scottish. We may have seen a BBC version, but what stays in the mind was Roman Polanski’s 1971 version with lots of violence and nudity.

And Keith Chegwin.

It was the first film he made after the Charles Manson stuff, the murder of Sharon Tate, and the violence is brutal — it precedes the rape/statutory rape scandal and the murky depths of whether he skipped justice or an unwise plea bargain. It is hard for some to watch a Polanski without the spectre of his life. The Scottish Play is a cursed play. Which is why you should never say “Macbeth”.

Gak.

And there was a Sam Worthington version a couple of years ago and now we have the version which Zack Snyder would direct in the tradition of 300 Spartans, but without the leather shorts.

Shame.

Plays are not films — the filmed play can seem stagy and closed in, but if you open it out you probably have to cut stuff to make room. Chunks of Shakespeare are scene setting, of course, his stages being almost bare rather than Wagnerian epics, so you can trim. The important thing is you can show rather than tell.

Oddly, however, the director felt the need to give us a written prologue that explains that a long time ago, in a country far far away, England was invading Scotland and Macbeth was top warrior. Why have a bloody man tell King Duncan the plot when we can read it?

We also have an invented scene of a burial for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s child. This is significant because at some point MacDuff, whose younglings have been killèd, says (perzoomably of Macbeth), “He has no children” and yet Lady Macbeth suggests that her breasts beasts have given sup. Either we posit that she is on a second marriage or a dead bairn. The two of them are thus grieving for a lost child, which they compensate for by arranging for lots more children to be killèd.

The decision seems to have been taken to play the action somewhat like a western; lots of open spaces and a slow burn (for what is a short and nippy play), although more to the point, none of the actors seem to open their mouths, which are for the most part covered in thick beards. Knowing the original text helps in working out who is speaking.

There are other liberties. Post battle, Macbeth — thane of Glamis — and his mate Banquo run into the three witches, who tell them that Macbeth is going to be promoted and Banquo should be proud of his children. Three witches, the three graces, the Virgin, the Mother and the, er, Other One.

Bloody Terry Pratchett rip-off.

Only, here there are four witches, and a child and a baby. Odd. Makes no sense.

So, Macbeth and his wife live in a simple yurted community with I think a Scandinavian church (or is it a feast hall?) and Shakiecams* follow their plotting to murder Duncan (David Threwfell) and pin the blame on his bodyguards. Then we’re meant to get one of the least funny clowns in the Shakespearean canon talking about brewer’s droop, but that gets cut. There’s some odd business with Duncan’s son Malcolm, which I think has been added, and then everyone buggers off the Bamburgh Castle and a Norman-style cathedral that pushes at the anachronistic. I mean, I suspect it’s about fifty years too early to be possible, and hardly seems likely. Meanwhile, they’ve finally found a tripod for the camera but can’t be bothered with continuity editing.

It’s been a long time since I saw the Polanski version of this and I know some people who would refuse to watch it on principle (and wasn’t there a Orson Welles one?), but however problematic it was, I don’t recall it taking one of Shakespeare’s shortest, speediest plays and making it just a tad dull.

Even if you did get Keith Chegwin.

* Shakiecam. As opposed to Steadicam. But there’s a pun there if you look hard enough. Possibly.