It is fitting on at least one level to see Julius Caesar as the final of five productions brought by the Royal Shakespeare Company to New York for a six-week season. Both the play and the organisation pull off an impressive massing of the troops. In the drama it is Marc Antony forcing Cassius and Brutus into dishonourable submission. With the RSC, the persuasion is gentler: audiences have been coaxed into the Park Avenue Armory’s replica of the Stratford environment to watch dozens of actors enact Shakespearean manoeuvres.
The productions have varied in artistic pageantry. Though slightly miscast, As You Like It offered a jaunty nihilism. Romeo and Juliet flirted with triviality. The repertory reached its nadir with King Lear – which had the misfortune to follow hard upon a well-received version in Brooklyn with Derek Jacobi – and its peak with The Winter’s Tale: before a Hair-like trip to Bohemia, it absolutely glimmered in conception and execution.
As Lear and Leontes, Greg Hicks has presided nobly over the RSC season, which is co-produced by the Armory and Lincoln Center Festival. He reassumes the purple in Julius Caesar, portraying the emperor with shaky confidence. When he disregards Calphurnia’s dream of his doom, he seems less a fatally flawed leader than a piqued spouse. The interpretation, though, contains a twisted logic.
Once Caesar is dispatched, dramatic momentum dissipates as quickly as did Psycho devoid of Janet Leigh. Hitchcockian, too, at least in this production, directed vigorously by Lucy Bailey, is the amount of blood flowing. I have never seen Caesar’s murder enacted with such choreographed movement – it’s practically a Springsteen-ian street ballet.
Cassius is given treacherous gusto by John Mackay. Injured while performing Romeo last month, Sam Troughton ingeniously incorporates a cane into his Brutus: a true trouper. Oliver Ryan proves unforgettable as Casca, a coke-fiend’s intensity alighting his features.
The star of the show is William Dudley, the set and video designer. Throughout the RSC’s engagement, I have often been frustrated by the length of the thrust stage, which consigns the scenic elements to the rear periphery. Dudley, however, makes the space feel more balanced. A series of panels swell like sails during the scenes of engagement. Video imagery on the panels augments the attack of troops or the restiveness of the Roman mob. The effect is chilling.