Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Julius Caesar - Barbican Theatre - 18 April 2005

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Deborah Warner
Designed by Tom Pye
I think that I might be very suggestible. During the interval I overheard a complaint, from another member of the audience, about the terrible acoustics in the Barbican Theatre. I’ve long heard this theatre vilified and declared the ‘worst’ but I’ve not seen it myself. I don’t find the seats that uncomfortable, like the fact that I don’t have to stand up every time people want to pass, and will put up with the brown plush trim. I also like the doors at the end of the rows that shut automatically just before the play begins.
Of course I’d never really thought about the acoustics and once I did I really started to notice. I also remembered not being able to hear some things properly in the first act. It probably wasn’t too bad but there was strange echo effect that occurred once or twice when Simon Russell Beale stepped into the small trapezoidal apron that juts out from the stage.
One of the selling points of this show, other than the quality director and all-star cast, was the 100-strong crowd, some of whom were members of the public. The crowd was obviously well orchestrated but there were a quite a number of proper actors among them and have seem quite a few of them on stage. It was probably intended that the crowd would bring the roman mob to life, but I kept thinking that there weren’t enough of them. It had something to do with the good marshalling. They would flood onto the stage take positions behind crowd barriers and then politely follow the lead of the actors amongst them. If they had use real actors or background artists, they may have got an organised chaos that would have added to the mob feel of things. There would have been danger and no need for barriers or the ring of security guards that were always there.
The problem with an all-star cast is that some of the stars aren’t required to do much. The main case in point in this production was Fiona Shaw as Portia. Shaw was fine, walking stick, falling over etc. but there wasn’t enough of her – it’s too small a part. Also now I come to think about it I didn’t believe a word of her character’s professions of weakness (Fiona Shaw – weak? – pah).
All-star is a relative term as it was only a starry cast if you know your theatre actors. Simon Russell Beale and Anton Lesser might be recognisable outside theatre circles but the likes of David Collings, John Shrapnel, Struan Rodger, Clifford Rose and John Rogan are respected actors but the names mean nothing to most. Actually John Rogan who I saw doing a frightening Inquisitor in Don Carlos a few years ago was also in the tiniest of roles.
The major ‘star’ in the production is probably Ralph Fiennes and this was probably the first time I can remember seeing him, enjoying a role or being so relaxed. Antony was the ‘good time’ guy whose eventual demise in Antony and Cleopatra was signalled.
There were a couple of other actors who I was interested to see. Paul Shearer was in the “Cellar Tapes” Cambridge Footlights Revue with Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Tony Slattery, as well as being a regular in the Fast Show. I sometimes think he ought to have made more of an impact.
A few weeks ago I saw an item on an Internet message board that went something like “Robert Demeger. What’s the point?” I didn’t read the full message thread and it was removed not long after it was posted but it did make me think. It is as if I have difficulty in believing that he’s an actor. It isn’t that he can’t act, in fact a quick Internet search produces glowing reviews for some of his performances. It’s more that if you were asked to point out all the actors in a room, you’d never pick him, even if he were the only person in the room. It’s horribly unfair to say or think it and there was nothing wrong with his performance in this.
Another actor to mention was Tim Potter who I remember as Dali in a production of Hysteria by Terry Johnson and as Charles II in the Libertine. He played the soothsayer carrying a consistently filled thin wine glass that his character had obviously been regularly draining.
Initially the set consisted of a wide shallow set of marble steps (filling most of the stage area) surrounded, on three sides by glass panels. There was also a number of square-cut stone columns of different low heights at the side of the steps. I wasn’t at all sure why they were there, other than that some actors stood on them during the crowd scenes so that they could be seen as they spoke. I seem to remember something similar in the way of columns in Deborah Warner’s production of Good Person of Sichuan at the National 16 years ago – almost certainly a coincidence.
For the second half (or final third) the stage was emptied, with furniture whisked on and off, when necessary, by rushing soldiers. In the battle scenes household debris (broken furniture, clothes and toys) was dumped on the stage from on high. This obviously had a deep significance but I chose not to think about it. There seemed to be some kind of video projection on the back wall of the theatre in the last scenes and there were all sorts of video designers and operators mentioned in the programme. However the video seemed to be random noise patterns (like an untuned TV) in green. It was probably art.

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