London Dispatch: Playbill Tour Praises, Buries Caesar at RSC

News   London Dispatch: Playbill Tour Praises, Buries Caesar at RSC
On the third day of the Playbill Preview Tour of London, the 19 iron-man theatregoers spent the morning touring London's oldest standing theatre, the 1812-vintage Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where Miss Saigon is playing.

On the third day of the Playbill Preview Tour of London, the 19 iron-man theatregoers spent the morning touring London's oldest standing theatre, the 1812-vintage Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where Miss Saigon is playing.

There was matineeing, marquee-gazing, CD-hunting, St. Paul's-climbing, Harrods-going and antiquing in the afternoon and, in the evening, an open-air coach pilgrimage to Sir Peter Hall's production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Several of the more dedicated fans of musicals raided Dress Circle, the Monmoth Street store that stocks recordings and sheet music for London and U.S. musicals, famous and obscure. A popular item was the original cast recording of tomorrow evening's entertainment By Jeeves itself. In fact, I'm listening to it as I type this.

We also found that we're developing impressively bad English accents, and picking up English usage, i.e, "Pass the jam, then?" This will probably only get worse.

Lunch for some consisted of beef and Stilton pie at the Rat and Parrot pub on Tavistock Lane. We passed up lunch at the Slug and Lettuce pub on St. Martin's Lane. We're not quite that English yet. After taking in Julius Caesar, we gathered in the Palm Court of the Waldorf Meridien Hotel and debated the production into the wee hours. Or, at any rate, one of the wee hours.

In particular, people compared many of the play's personalities, situations and passages to contemporary American politics, especially the way Marc Antony manipulates public opinion in his sarcastic "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech, and how similar it sounds to some political commercials in this election year.

The group also debated the meaning of Caesar's last words, the famous "Et tu, Brute." Does it mean, "You too, Brutus?" as in, "I can believe these others are assassinating me, but not you, too, old friend Brutus"? Or does it mean, "You, too, will suffer this fate, Brutus"? Or both? Christopher Benjamin's reading didn't settle the matter conclusively.

It was pointed out that this was also the third night in which the second act featured a scene in which the stage was lit with red and the entire cast ran around chasing somebody. In Martin Guerre it was the Catholics hunting Protestants. In Oliver! it was cops and a mob hunting Bill Sykes. In JC it was Mark Antony's troops battling Brutus'.

Julius Caesar also caused the several in the group to rebel against the whole thumbs up/thumbs down system -- ironic, considering the fact that the whole thumb issue was started by the Caesars anyway.

Arnold Sundel led the protest, saying his feelings about the production were too mixed. Several others joined suit.

Sir Peter's production was a traditional one, with none of the fanciful reinventing that marked his famous 1960s production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. People's opinions tended to turn on whether they thought this was a good thing or not, and on the quality (or lack) in the leading performances. Final tally: 10 thumbs up, three thumbs down, four with mixed feelings and two abstentions. Here are excerpts from the group's reviews:

Kenneth Robbins of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.:
I didn't expect this. This was much more dynamic. The acting, especially of Brutus [John Nettles] and Cassius [Julian Glover], was powerful. I felt it wasn't just actors playing Shakespeare, but real people pouring out their emotions.

Betty White of East Lansing, MI:
I enjoyed it. They did it very well, though I prefer when there's an intermission.

Milton Demel of Studio City, CA:
Marc Antony wasn't enthralling enough. He was a major flaw in the production.

Gay Colette of Alpharetta, GA:
I was very impressed with Marc Antony [Hugh Quarshie]. He gave the "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech the cadences of a black Southern preacher. I didn't like Caesar's wife [Calpurnia, played by Tilly Blackwood], but Brutus also was very strong.

Arnold Sundel of Brooklyn, N.Y.:
The production was quite good. Their Julius Caesar [Christopher Benjamin] was outstanding. I wasn't that crazy about their Marc Antony, though it was interesting to see how easy it was to rouse people for Brutus and against Brutus.

Robert Hatem of New York City:
I didn't care for their Marc Antony. Maybe that's because he reminded me of [New York activist preacher] Al Sharpton.

Ken Robbins of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.:
I was bothered by the crowd scenes [in which Sir Peter Hall had the actors deliver their shouted lines in unison]. It sounded like an amateur production.

Annette Jacobs of East Lansing, MI:
I kept thinking of Canada's Stratford Festival whose staging far outshined this. It's such a traditional production. At Stratford there was much more playing with our imaginations. Also, the acoustics [at the Barbican] were not great, and Brutus wasn't projecting.

Joyce Sundel of Brooklyn, N.Y.:
I liked it very much. They articulated beautifully. I didn't like Calpurnia, though. She reminded me of Goldie Hawn.

On the fourth day of our trip, we'll be touring the Royal National Theatre complex, and then, in the evening, seeing Andrew Lloyd Webber's new By Jeeves at the Duke of York's Theatre. Check in tomorrow for our reviews.

The second Playbill Preview Tour to London, Nov. 17-24, is booking quickly. For details, jump London in November, or call Beverly Markman or Roberta Cohen at (800) 554-7513.

-- By Robert Viagas

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