Julius Caesar

jc-progOur last visit to the RSC in Stratford was in 2007. We try to go for my birthday in August but last year left it too late to book tickets to see Hamlet; with David Tennant in the lead role tickets went very quickly!

This year we went to see Julius Caesar, at The Courtyard Theatre. (Work on the new auditorium is well underway but performances there still seem a long way off.) The RSC’s production emphasises how brutal, dangerous and violent the world of ancient Rome was.  As we entered the theatre and took our seats two scantily-clothed, dirt-streaked actors were fighting on stage like wild animals, portraying Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome – a dramatic addition to Shakespeare’s original text. This was followed by the Roman fertility festival of Lupercal – Lupercal is a cave on the Palatine Hill believed to be where a wolf suckled Romulus and Remus. I thought this was a most effective beginning, with the statue of the wolf suckling the twins projected on the backdrop, and showing a Rome full of violence, panic and hysteria. The cast was aided by video scenes of the crowd projected onto screens. It was actually very clever, if rather distracting but as we were sitting to one side of the stage I was able to ignore most of it.

The performance has stayed fresh in my mind. It was certainly a most entertaining production, and I enjoyed it even though it was slightly marred because I found most of Brutus’s dialogue inaudible. This may be because for his quieter speeches Sam Troughton had his back to our side of the stage, and yet I had no difficulty in hearing the other actors. His portrayal of Brutus emphasised the flaws in Brutus’s character – is Brutus really an “honourable man”? Clearly not, as Troughton’s “scared rabbit”, hesitant portrayal of Brutus came over as weak in complete contrast to Greg Hicks’s Caesar and particularly to Darrell D’Silva’s brutish and battle-scarred Mark Antony. As Cassius reveals, Brutus is easily persuaded over to the conspirators’ cause.

Julius Caesar is a play that has never convinced me that Caesar’s actions were so ambitious, nor of the justice or otherwise of the conspirators’ cause and this performance didn’t help. The conspirators came over as self-seeking and just as autocratic as Caesar, although strangely I found myself sympathising with Cassius, a character I didn’t take to when I read the play, with his “lean and hungry look”. Maybe this Cassius was just not that hungry, but nevertheless he was dangerous and Caesar would have done well to follow his own advice and avoid him.

The play draws attention to difference between the idealised image of Caesar and his infirmities – he is deaf in one ear, a weak swimmer and epileptic and Greg Hicks’s performance was powerful, if rather over-emphasised. However, Mark Antony’s vigorous and convincing devastation at Caesar’s death probably swung me over to his side. Darrell D’Silva’s performance was by far the best of the night.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I’™ve now finished the ‘œEat’ section of this book, or in other words the section in Elizabeth Gilbert’™s book about her stay in Italy. The book is growing on me, or maybe I’™m becoming accustomed to her style of writing. I’™ve already written about her comments on how Italians cheer themselves up after their football team has lost a match by eating cream puffs, but there a couple of other things caught my attention in this section.

The first is a reference to Dante ‘“ I’™ve written several posts on Dante’™s The Divine Comedy and Florence. Elizabeth goes to an Italian class to help her learn the language. She explains how for centuries there was no ‘œItalian’ language – Italians wrote and spoke in different local dialects ‘“ and it was only in the 16th century that a gathering of intellectuals decided that the official Italian language (in its written form at least) was the language used by Dante; the language in which he had published The Divine comedy in 1321; the language spoken by his fellow Florentines.

The other most interesting discovery I made in reading ‘œEat’ is about the Augusteum ‘“ a big round ruin near the Ara Pacis, the Altar to Peace. I didn’™t know its name before, nor its history. I first visited Rome in 1992. I had been doing an Open University course on Roman History and wanted to see various sites, including the Roman Forum, the Coliseum and the Ara Pacis. This large round ruin intrigued me; it’™s such a contrast to the Ara Pacis, which is an enormous, gleaming white marble altar, showing the Emperor Augustus’™ triumphal entry into Rome, consecrated in 9BC. The Museo dell’Ara Pacis website gives the history of the altar and details of its renovation.

The entrance to the ruin was gated and locked and all we could see were some wild cats ‘“ there are lots in Rome – and a lady who had come with some food for the cats. It looked a really mysterious and forbidding place and I wanted to know its history.

Elizabeth Gilbert explains that this is the Augusteum, which was originally a mausoleum built by the Emperor Augustus to house his remains and those of his family. It fell into ruins after the fall of the Roman Empire and his ashes were stolen. By the 12th century it had been turned into a fortress for the Colonna family, then later became a vineyard, a Renaissance garden, a bullring in the 18th century, a fireworks depository, then a concert hall. In the 1930s Mussolini restored it to its classical foundations and intended it to house his remains.

Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’™t mention the Ara Pacis, but says that the Augusteum ‘œis one of the quietest and loneliest place in Rome, buried deep in the ground. The city has grown up around it over centuries. (One inch a year is the general rule of thumb for the accumulation of time’™s debris.) Traffic above the monument spins in a hectic circle, and nobody ever goes down there ‘“ from what I can tell ‘“ except to use the place as a public bathroom. But the building still exists, holding its Roman ground with dignity, waiting for its next incarnation.’

Yes, it was lonely went we went there (and it did smell, too). Both the Augusteum and the Ara Pacis were very quiet and with very few people around. We went back to Rome in 2003 and again both sites were very quiet, we were the only people there ‘“ a treat in such a crowded, busy city.