Director Lucy Bailey makes Rome a dark, noisy place. Her Royal Shakespeare Company production of Julius Caesar (Park Avenue Armory) opens, in half-light, with an allegorical wrestling match, its two combatants screaming whenever they’re grabbed. At first I thought I’d wandered into As You Like It by mistake, but no: The wrestlers, who I suspect were meant to be Romulus and Remus, hauled each other offstage, and the Lupercal festival that actually begins Shakespeare’s play rushed on, drabber and louder than usual. The workers’ holiday clothing that the tribunes snark about looks decidedly unfestive, in Fotini Dimou’s designs, and the patricians who duly appear are equally somber. Keeping the thrust stage mostly bare, set designer William Dudley decorates the back wall’s two levels with projections: shifting gray clouds, or gray Roman arches, above; shifting gray crowds, later supplanted by rippling gray ranks of projected soldiers, below.
More cohesive overall than the company’s King Lear—the play itself being tauter and less wide-ranging—Bailey’s production nonetheless carries the faults that currently dog the RSC in its slow crawl back upward toward respectability. Though not without point, the event lacks purpose; it conveys no particular reason why we should be watching Julius Caesar now, except that Shakespeare came up with some memorable lines.
Holding the actors to a largely more consistent style than they display in Lear, Bailey reveals, more glaringly, the RSC’s weak spots. Not only is the troupe’s speech in general slovenly (with notable exceptions), but its quality of voice production is erratic at best, its sense of vocal color almost nonexistent. Nobody wants artsily elocutionary, “poetical” speech—God knows we’ve all had enough of that in Shakespeare—but his plays demand at least a basic awareness of the difference between prose and verse, an understanding that he wrote in differing styles, with a varied sense of underlying tone and rhythm, for specific dramatic purposes.
The RSC’s actors, however, too rarely seem aware that speech can have dramatic purposes at all, beyond an occasional burst of vocal fireworks. As in the Lear, a strange disjunction prevails between word and deed. Long, pointless pauses, sometimes interlarded with grunts or shouts, open scenes clearly written to begin in medias res; inexplicable distances separate simple, conversational lines from the simple acts they embody; quirky hesitations spring up, often, in the middle of phrases, making hash where Shakespeare made sense. The ailment is an ancient one, and it has plagued Shakespeare performances, here as in England, for three centuries. Bernard Shaw put his finger on it back in the 1890s, complaining of the prevailing notion “that Shakespeare, being a genius, ought not to be interpreted according to the lights of common sense.” The Royal Shakespeare Company was founded in part to battle this misconception; today’s RSC embodies it.
Its acting, regrettably, doesn’t embody much else. Sam Troughton, an actor of genuine presence and power, at least adumbrates the tormented struggle going on within Brutus, the fair-minded man who commits evil for the sake of what he thinks is the greater good. Recovering from a knee injury incurred while playing Romeo a few weeks back, Troughton must lean on a cane for support, but still emerges miles ahead of his principal colleagues in the clarity and depth of his characterization. Darrell D’Silva’s Antony, effective enough in its gruff way, is essentially the same “plain, blunt man” as his Kent in Lear, ignoring the manipulative, demagogic ambitions that hide under Antony’s plain-spoken bluntness. Greg Hicks’s self-aggrandizing shopkeeper of a Caesar, strictly small-time, makes Antony’s devotion to him seem absurd. Most disheartening of all is John MacKay, in the pivotal role of Cassius, a good-looking, well-spoken actor whose every word and gesture rings unconvincingly.
It’s left to small-part actors, mostly young, to give the company hints of hope: Joseph Arkley, Gruffudd Glyn, Paul Hamilton, Patrick Romer, David Rubin, and Christopher Saul all at least convey that they know what they’re doing and saying; Phillip Edgerley’s tiny, precisely made moments as Popilius Lena and Antony’s messenger to the conspirators register more forcefully than all of this Rome’s empty vociferations. A company could arise here, but it will take time. Rome, they say, wasn’t built in a day either.