Shakespeare’s Roman plays on stage

Well, I live within reasonable travelling distance of London, so I may as well take advantage of it!

When the Royal Shakespeare Company announced they were performing all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays in the same season, I felt like that proverbial kid in the candy-shop, unable to decide which one to go for. Should I go to see Antony and Cleopatra again? I have admittedly seen it many times before, but I love that play. Or there’s Julius Caesar, a play I was quite obsessed with as a thirteen-year-old – I used, I remember, to read it over and over again, and it is very firmly imprinted in my mind – but, for whatever reason, I had never seen it on stage before. Or there was Coriolanus, which, too, I had never seen on stage: maybe a stage production would help me appreciate better this strange play – Shakespeare’s last tragedy featuring a protagonist who, far from developing into some measure of self-awareness, seems resolutely incapable of any kind of development at all. In the end, the kid in the candy shop realised he couldn’t decide, and spent all his pocket money on all the sweets.

(Well, not perhaps all: Titus Andronicus has never really been a favourite play of mine, but I have not seen this on stage either, and I have received some very fine reports of this production.)

RomanPlays

Coriolanus came first. I have always found this a grim and rather severe play. It is one of Shakespeare’s longest, and, lacking as it does a subplot, the focus is insistently, almost oppressively, on its principal character throughout. And this character seems not to have much of an inner life: an unthinking fighting machine, seemingly incapable not merely of subtle or of profound thought, but of any thought at all. And he lacks poetry. The entire play seems to lack poetry: those wonderful lines and passages scattered throughout Shakespeare’s plays that grab you by the throat or make those hairs on the back of your neck stand up with their expressive eloquence and their irresistible verbal music seem very conspicuous here by their absence. Shakespeare obviously knew what he was doing: problem is, I don’t.

The performance didn’t really help. The text was quite severely cut, and as a consequence, lacked the sense of that almost oppressive intensity I seem to detect when I am reading it. Sope Dirisu as Coriolanus didn’t really project any strong personality, or charisma, as I think he ideally needed to. For some reason, the drama somehow failed to grip. Either that, or I just attended a bad night. (I have bad days in the office sometimes: I am sure actors are allowed the occasional bad day on the stage!)

So, basically, Coriolanus remains for me something of a puzzle. But I’ll keep trying.

Next came Antony and Cleopatra, a play I have gone on about quite a bit in various posts here, as it is a firm favourite of mine. It started very promisingly: Josette Simon was a very spirited and vivacious Cleopatra, and Antony Byrne looked just right playing his namesake – a war-hardened soldier who, now advancing in years, is losing it. I particularly liked the way Ben Allen played Octavius – a very young man who nonetheless takes his responsibilities seriously, and who, at the start, idolises Antony as a great soldier, and cannot understand why this once great soldier is no longer living up to his Roman sense of duty. This makes sense of the text. Here, the proposal that Antony marry Octavia is no mere cynical ploy on Octavius’ part: he really wants Antony in his family, and actually believes that the love of a good Roman woman would cure Antony of his Egyptian decadence. So when Antony does return to Cleopatra, Octavius can only take this as a personal insult. And at the same time, his expression of grief on hearing of Antony’s death appears heartfelt, as it was surely intended to be: in too many productions, where Octavius is played as a cynical, manipulative statesman, cold and unfeeling in all his dealings, this scene falls flat, s it is hard to believe that such a man could be capable of such heartfelt emotion. Here, it worked splendidly.

But all was not perfect here either. For one thing, the cuts. I understand that this is a long play, and some cuts are necessary, but here, they did hurt. They cut the scene on the night before the battle where the soldiers on guard duty hear mysterious music coming from under the ground. It is only a short scene, and is very atmospheric: I’m sure it could have stayed. The many battle scenes were considerably thinned out, reducing, I felt, something of the play’s epic dimension. The scene between Cleopatra and her treasurer is cut. And, most grievous of all, I thought, was the excision of that wonderful passage where Antony calls round all his sad captains:

                                            … Come,
Let’s have one other gaudy night: call to me
All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more;
Let’s mock the midnight bell.

I also couldn’t help feeling that they short-changed the poetry somewhat. Among other things, Antony and Cleopatra is full of passages of soaring lyricism: it’s almost as if Shakespeare had poured into this play all the verbal opulence that he so carefully kept out of his very next play Coriolanus. And yet, the beauty of the poetry did not really seem to register. Even Cleopatra’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful lines

Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me

seemed  to lack solemn majesty.

It could be argued, of course, that “solemn majesty” is not how Josette Simon sees Cleopatra, and certainly, she has plenty of textual evidence on her side. Perhaps I am bringing too many of my own preconceptions to the proceedings, and that’s never a good thing.

And today, it was Julius Caesar. We read this play at school when I was thirteen, and, contrary to the oft-repeated mantra that Shakespeare in the classroom puts people off for the rest of their lives, I loved it. I think I developed a sort of obsession about it. And, rather strangely perhaps, I remember how I used to regard this play back then. Brutus was my hero, a genuine man of honour, who, quite rightly, acted to protect the Roman people from Caesar’s tyranny, and was defeated by the unscrupulous Antony. Now, while still thinking that Brutus acted with honourable motives, he seems to me something of a self-obsessed prig, continually telling everyone how very honourable he was. Cassius now seems to me more neurotic than I had then thought him. Antony is still unscrupulous, but now, I find myself admiring his extraordinary courage, and his loyalty to the dead Caesar. And Caesar himself I find myself admiring more than I used to. In short, I have grown up, and am more aware of the various ambivalences in all four of these fascinating leading characters.

And I found myself also thinking that while Antony and Cleopatra – written some seven years after Julius Caesar – was not intended as a sequel, the characters of Antony and of Octavius are consistent with what had gone before. Antony’s tiring of his responsibilities in the later play, and wishing only for a life of unthinking hedonism, takes on particularly strong resonance when one knows that Antony had spent his youth in pursuit of pleasure, and had only taken on political and soldierly duties when circumstances had compelled him to do so. The great statesman and soldier we hear of in the later play we see for ourselves in the earlier: and we see also what had driven him to such a life. And in his advancing years, it is his carefree pleasure-filled youth he wishes to return to.

The production, I thought, is tremendous. Alex Waldman plays Brutus here is a self-obsessed prig that I now see him to be, and Martin Hutson’s Cassius is overtly neurotic. Andrew Woodall is a splendid Caesar (he had been an equally splendid Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra) , and the whole thing is staged quite superbly. Best of all, perhaps, was James Corrigan’s dynamic Antony: that great speech scene was every bit as electric as it should be. And for once, they played the text more or less complete, with only the smallest of cuts. (But then again, this is a much shorter play than the other two.)

One thing that struck my fifty-seven-year-old self that I most certainly had not recognised as a thirteen-year-old is that the final act is surprisingly weak. A big battle scene, and a rounding off of the story – all finely executed, sure, but I get the feeling that after the long scene in Brutus’ tent in the fourth act, Shakespeare didn’t really have anything more to add. The final act, in comparison to what had gone before, is perhaps a bit routine. But no matter. Those first four acts are simply extraordinary, and this play will always have a special place in my heart. Why it took me so long to get round to seeing it on stage, I really don’t know.

So should I go and see Titus Andronicus this January? I have never really liked the play, but it is one of the fifteen plays of Shakespeare’s I haven’t yet seen on stage (I was counting them off on my fingers on the train back home), so perhaps I should make the effort. If only to tick it off the list. But something tells me that the boy in the candy-shop has had too much candy already.

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dwight on December 10, 2017 at 12:51 am

    What a fine candy shop it is. Glad to hear A&C was good…it is easily one of my top faves.

    I have yet to see it on the stage, and can see the difficulty and challenges it brings to present it that way, although it may be one of his best plays suited for the stage. It focuses on one hero, at the cost of many exciting and/or sympathetic characters, and is able to go into detail on the politics as well as the personal drives.
    I’d disagree slightly in saying Coriolanus doesn’t have a developed inner life, although it’s not terribly rounded. My favorite parts are his relationships with Volumnia and the crowd/community, where the conflicts develop the political themes, and Shakespeare’s presentation of the average member of the crowd is particularly biting.
    Regarding the play, have you seen the movie version by Ralph Fiennes? It gets very mixed reviews and I understand why, but I thought it generally well done and develops the political angles extremely well.

    Thanks so much for passing on your experiences with these productions!

    Reply

    • Posted by Dwight on December 10, 2017 at 4:25 pm

      Oops…second paragraph switches to talking about Coriolanus and not seeing it on the stage.

      Reply

    • Hello Dwight,
      I agree with you that Coriolanus’ does indeed have an inner life, and that Shakespeare had developed it fully. It’s just that that inner life dos not seem to me very interesting. It’s not as intricate as Hamlet’s, as profound as Othello’s, as subtle as Macbeth’s. I honestly fail to see what Shakespeare expected us to take an interest in. But that’s just me, isn’t it? I guess it’s just a case of my not quite getting along with this play…

      I’ll give the Ralph Fiennes film a go some time. I have seen Ralph Fiennes on stage playing Ibsen’s “Brand”, and he will e plaing Antony at the National Theatre London next year in “Antony and Cleopatra”. He is a splendid stage actor.

      Best wishes,
      Himadri

      Reply

  2. Posted by Janet on December 10, 2017 at 7:04 am

    Go for it! You totally should.

    Reply

  3. Posted by A Slac on December 10, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    If you don’t go to see T.A. on stage Himadri, you’ll probably wish you had, so go for it! Extremely interesting blog xxAnn

    Reply

  4. Posted by Roger on December 11, 2017 at 4:50 pm

    I’ve only three Shakespeares left to see but it has taken a lifetime. I saw a great production of Titus a few years ago in Baltimore that emphasized Shakespeare’s genius for theatricality, played as a 40 s film noir. They changed the order around effectively, Livinia emerging from woods, defiled, is perhaps the most horrible sight I’ve seen stage or screen, and Aaro’s chilling defense of evil, with some cannibalism besides. It can be a bracing experience.

    Reply

    • Hello Roger,
      I saw the BBC production of this from the early 80s, and thought it a splendid production. It is very theatrical, I agree, but it presents a view of humanity I find frankly quite nauseating. Humans here are merely vile and evil creatures; and their only possible reaction to suffering is too inflict even greater suffering on others. It’s not so much the horrors I find myself objecting to, but, rather, a lack of an adequate response to the horrors. If humans are indeed as irredeemably depraved as this drama suggests, they aren’t worth botherng with: they aren’t even worth writing plays about.

      Shakespeare did, of course, later present us with far more profound visions of what it means to be human, and I do hope he wasn’t being entirely serious with this one!

      But for all that, I may well go to see this – if only to tick it off the list!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

      • Posted by Janet on December 11, 2017 at 7:44 pm

        I like to think of TA as a prelude to the rest. It’s hard to imagine he had several Henrys and a Richard under his belt before he knocked out this one, but here’s my theory. He was in bed one day, down with the flu, when the producer barged in and struck a tragic pose. “Will, I’m a ruined man! I and all the lads. Pull yourself together, man, and give us a sixteenth century Human Caterpillar. We’re depending on you.” Battling through a headache and suffering inhumanly because Kleenex and NyQuil were eons away, he worked his exhaustion and moody malcontent from not being allowed to take a sick day, whereas Marlowe probably got lots of sick days when all he wanted to do was sleep off a hangover or go to the beach, into a recitation of every horrifying scene from ancient lit that he could think of without going to the library for research. Cleverly adapted into a single story line, all the prototypes of nightmare in one relentless bloodbath was bound to be a crowdpleaser. Later, when he was feeling better, he was able to pull the threads of the individual nightmares and make something new and glorious and theatrically enduring of each. In TA, each episode, removed from its original context and assigned to a character without a history, who we don’t really care all that much about, piled up like Hondas in a Tule fog, can hit us like a gross-out comic mashup. I suppose it can be played that way. Or one can try to see the play as a kind of Guernica, a seemingly apocalyptic description of human experience at its worst, relieved only by an awareness that the desire for an alternative also exists. Shakespeare never really gives alternatives in his better plays, but he does assign the nightmares to people we care about or at least identify with, which helps.

  5. If I had to choose only one, it would be “Julius Caesar”. I have fond memories of acting this at home with my younger brother when I was about 12, David about 10. I still remember the “Is Brutus sick?” speech by heart . The whole scene, in fact – and so does he!
    Re: “Titus Andronicus” – I take it that you, at least, don’t need a trigger warning 😉

    Reply

    • That sounds wonderful! I wish I had grown up acting Shakespeare with my siblings!
      And you’re right – I don’t think I’d need a trigger warning for Titus Andronicus. If I see real scenes of violence (in news reports say), or if I even read or hear about horrific violence, I can feel quite sick; but in films or on the stage, after the initial shock of the moment, I find it easy to remind myself it’s all just make-up and special effects.

      Reply

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