London’s streets were deserted last week. Everyone seemed to be home, struggling to cope with the coldest spell we’ve had in years. But theatregoers were still out and about, scuttling as quickly as frozen pavements would allow. I could barely speak on the way back from the Bridge Theatre after a production of Julius Caesar but that was more from shivering than lack of things to say.
First, a confession: I know this play well, having studied it at school. In fact, I think I could have understudied most of the parts. But this was a Julius Caesar with a difference. It was performed at a cracking pace, coming in at a whisker over two hours. Michael Grandage is well-known for insisting that a play – particularly Shakespeare – can’t hang around, but this would have left even him breathless. Lack of an interval helped, but even so …
It worked, with one exception. The famous Friends, Romans, countrymen … speech could have done with Mark Antony feeling his way a little more; there was a slight sense that he was working against the clock and taking the crowd’s reactions for granted as a result. He should be trying to win them over. After the Donmar’s all-female cast, it felt more authentic to have women in some of the roles, notably Michelle Fairley as Cassius and a perfectly opinionated Casca. Top marks go to Ben Whishaw for diverting from the usual cadences of his script to provide a thoughtful, flawed and natural Brutus and David Calder for creating the first credible Julius Caesar that I’ve seen.
If Julius Caesar was a scamper, Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic needed some serious paring. I saw it at second preview so it might have had its much-needed trim by now. The first act could have done with at least 15 minutes off it and I’d prescribe half-an-hour off the whole production. Even then, it would come in at well over three hours.
It needs it because it’s flabby in places, but also to counteract some very unpalatable violence. I shan’t say any more, but it’s a lesson in checking what you’re going to see before you’re in the middle of a row in the middle of the stalls. One of our group left after the second act. It’s challenging viewing.
So, two very different productions showing the breadth of theatre in London. The Bridge Theatre is a new venue and I’m sufficiently impressed with what I’ve seen to want to go back. Check it out.