This review is being written on a plane between London and Moscow. Having just watched two of the three Shakespeare plays presented by the RSC as part of its Rome season (the third is Titus Andronicus), I am now on my way to see a production by one of Moscow’s most venerable theatre companies – Vakhtangov – before it arrives in London.
I share this information not to brag about the glamour of flying economy to Moscow in January, but because with the RSC’s shows – first seen at the company’s Stratford-upon-Avon HQ – still fresh in the mind, at 35,000 feet I find them rubbing shoulders with memories of another classic: the last Vakhtangov production I saw.
It was a freewheeling version of Uncle Vanya that subverted just about every Chekhov convention in a director’s handbook. Every expectation was replaced by the unexpected. And in that sense it was the opposite of these RSC Shakespeare, which give you exactly the Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra that you think you are going to get.
Robert Innes Hopkins’ design of Rome and Cairo conjures a traditional aesthetic. It is a place of stone columns, plinths and classical statues. In Angus Jackson’s production of Julius Caesar the Romans wear togas and pressed leather breastplates. In Iqbal Khan’s Antony and Cleopatra the Egyptians dress for ritual in horned Sphinx-like masks and headdresses, but otherwise in flowing elegant dresses of (presumably) Egyptian cotton. It is not so much ancient worlds that are evoked here but our collective impressions of them, wrought by school textbooks and Hollywood movies. You half expect Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to make an entrance, perhaps a camel to amble by.
But if visually the result is something akin to painting by numbers, in Khan’s production at least Laura Mvula’s rousing percussive score prevents ennui from taking hold. And so does Josette Simon’s capricious Cleopatra. She is the physical feline opposite of Antony Byrne’s pitbull of a Mark Antony. And although it is more the contrast than the chemistry that is fascinating about these two, even Simon’s momentary nude costume change cannot prevent the impression that this is a production of few risks.
Dramatically the productions coast rather than grip – the exception being where flesh is pierced by steel. In Khan’s production Byrne uses Mark Antony’s misfiring attempt to kill himself to reveal an ironic sense of humour, and in Jackson’s the flailing knives ripping through the toga of Andrew Woodall’s clearly over-promoted Caesar is a horrific depiction of murder, albeit led by Alex Waldmann’s underpowered Brutus.
But perhaps most lacking of all is the sense that the leaders of these ancient worlds have little in common with our current leaders. Julius Caesar is especially a play that can implicate the hubris of politicians. Trump gets off scot-free. For that kind of political relevance it is probably best to wait for the forthcoming Julius Caesar at London’s newest theatre, the Bridge (recently opened by former National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner). If Hytner’s Iraq-inspired Henry V is anything to go by, it will feel as if the play was written yesterday. We’ll see.