Michael Cashman makes his first appearance in the title role of Anthony Clark's Birmingham production of Julius Caesar standing on a plinth, impersonating a statue to himself; as Roman plebeians wrangle with the tribunes, he slips off unobtrusively. Not terribly imperious conduct; but this is a dictator who – until one reads the programme notes about the soothsayer's method of divination by interpreting patterns of light bouncing off a shiny object – appears literally frightened of his own reflection. Elsewhere, Cashman plays Caesar as larger than life; he uses the full range of his voice in terms of pitch, volume and timbre... but often in the same sentence, with the result that at times he seems almost to be singing his lines.
Director Clark seems determined to leave no theme in the play un-alluded to. Patrick Connellan's design centres upon "an anatomical lecture theatre, a parliament, a debating chamber... a place to examine the 'body politic'." Julius's near-divinity and imminent kingship are encapsulated in a rousing chorus of that well-loved hymn, "All Hail The Power Of Caesar's [sic] Name", ending "Crown him Lord of all." Early twentieth-century costumes (augmented by senatorial togas) betray the influence of McKellen's Richard III, and occasional clusters of women refugees fleeing the ravages of the civil war give a modish nod towards Bosnia.
The conspirators are particularly young – often only twentysomething – which makes a minor nonsense out of a number of lines, including the comment about her "once-commended beauty" by Brutus's wife Portia (Bonnie Engstrom, plainly still in full flower), but does create the sense of a junior officers' coup. A curious stroke of casting has led to Cassius being played by James Dreyfus, hitherto best known for his West End lead in Eurovision and his television role as PC Goody in The Thin Blue Line, neither part exactly fraught with macho menace. I freely own to being surprised by the control of Dreyfus's performance (in goatee and glasses which lend him an uncanny resemblance to his acting contemporary Paul Ritter), but he remains a little over-keen to lurk conspiratorially or quiver that bit too much in high passion.
The World War One-era military uniforms bolster the trenchant impression that, like that conflagration, the civil war arose in large part simply because a number of key players regarded it as inevitable. This element is, for me, the production's prime strength – the senseless ravage of an empire merely because it did not occur either to the conspirators or the First Triumvirate that it might not be necessary. Overall, though, Clark wants it all; his indisputably intelligent production does not aim to answer questions, but often it does not clearly raise them, simply tipping its hat in their direction. As the Emperor of Austria rebukes Mozart in Amadeus: "Too many notes."
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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