And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war.
That more or less sums up the problem with this play. In parts, it's very exciting: it's got some great characters, lots of beautifully articulated political manipulation and there's that wonderful speech by Mark Antony where he rouses the crowd to riot in spite of the censor (I'd love to see this set in communist Russia). But the second half can't live up to the structure of the first: it's just death, death and more death - a series of sketches of people killing themselves and each other, which, after the third or fourth event, starts to get a bit silly. This is entirely Shakespeare's fault, and not that of the cast and director, who brilliantly develop the chilling suspense and climax of the first half, and at least keep straight faces in the second.
The emphasis was on making it clear to the audience what a bloody and violent place ancient Rome must have been to live in. As the audience drifted chatting happily to their seats, two filthy, loin-clothed wrestlers steadily though exhaustedly attempted to kill each other on stage. This was reminding us of Rome's violent origin in the battle of Romulus and Remus, obviously - but what was interesting was the way it forced you into the position of the audiences in the Roman circuses. Here were two men fighting to the death, and because the house lights were up, we were cunningly inveigled into taking a casual attitude to it, rather than giving it dignity by watching with the respectful RSC hush. Very clever.
One thing I was initially dubious about was the use of cinema. It's very much to the fore in this production. The backdrop sky actually changes; crowds are created by overlaid footage projected on screens at stage level. This is always a very courageous choice for a director to make. It's about the most distracting thing you can do to your audience, and given the setting (and some of the footage chosen) there was a real danger of shades of Monty Python creeping in. However, as the play went on, I found that the technique lent the crowd scenes in particular an intensity and liveliness I haven't before experienced in the theatre. Instead of the usual slight effort to suspend your disbelief as seven or eight actors run around shouting a lot, this crowd felt hot and hectic and intrusive and oppressive, just like a real one. The feeling was synthetic, as film feelings are, instead of organic like the best theatre feelings, and yes, it continued to be distracting, but I had to conclude, reluctantly, that it was ultimately successful.
John Mackay's bitter, straightforward Cassius is the driving force of the first act, cutting through the personality of Sam Troughton's diffident, well-meaning Brutus like lemon sauce with suet pudding. A wonderfully balanced match and a great basis for the play - one thoroughly understands the reasons behind the plot. Greg Hicks creates Caesar in a remarkably dislikable rock star mould, which actually works rather well, and makes the ghost all the more sinister. Hannah Young makes a great impression as Portia: it's a small part but she delivers it with such passion and pathos that what happens to her later - which you don't even witness, only hear described - really hurts.
And is Mark Antony any good? Well, yes. Darrell D'Silva has a whale of a time with the riot speech and makes it as marvellous as the text deserves. In the immediate aftermath of Caesar's death - a little over the top perhaps? But it's a play of strong flavours and perhaps this is necessary to maintain the excitement.
That might go some of the way towards justifying the very, very strange decision at the very end. After the last line, everyone files on again in character, covered in blood, and without interacting at all, in total silence, one by one they keel over and "die". It's extraordinary, and not in a good way. I can't imagine why they did it. When you've got a play so overloaded with bloody deaths that you're already in danger of making your audience laugh, why ladle on a whole extra lot you're not even textually obliged to perform? It detracted hugely, I thought, from the seriousness of what had gone before.
Notwithstanding which, if you want to see some excellent performances in a sturdy production of a flawed yet brilliant play, this is a good one to see: the text is thoroughly alive throughout, which is more than one can say for the characters.