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Unkind cuts. Richard Pasco. The 1979 BBC Shakespeare version of Julius Caesar.

June 29, 2017


Herbert Wise had directed I Claudius a few years earlier, and knew a bit about acting in togas.  So much, apparently, that part of him really didn’t want to stage Julius Caesar in Roman dress at all.  He would have preferred Renaissance costume.  It is possible that subsequent series producers – Jonathan Miller and Shaun Sutton, would have permitted or encouraged a Renaissance staging, but Cedric Messina had a far more conservative sense of responsibility to public expectations and so togas were decreed.

As a production, it’s neither filmic nor contentedly theatrical.  There are too many people in the crowd scenes to make you feel you’re in a theatre but not enough to make you feel you’re watching a movie.  The sets are too artificial looking to resemble a real city, but not happy enough with their own artifice to evoke a sense of real stagecraft.

Worse, Herbert Wise has soliloquies delivered as voiceovers, a strategy that rarely fails to irritate me.  I’m thinking it is the half-way house nature of the production that informs a timidity that in turn results in an embarrassed attitude to lips moving when only one character is on stage.  The voiceover does not communicate interiority better than a soliloquy.  What it does is communicate a directorial sense of a “problem” with the whole concept of a soliloquy.

1970s BBC drama being a comparatively small world, it was perhaps inevitable that Wise bring some of his I Claudius cast with him to populate his Rome.  Darien Angadi, whose short and unhappy life always give me pause for sombre thought was  one such.  John Laurimore and Manning Wilson were two others.  Sam Dastor is splendid as the wittiest character in the play – the exquisitely dry Casca.  A few years earlier Dastor had played Cassius Chaerea, the disgruntled commander of Caligula’s Praetorian Guard making him, I feel sure, the only actor to stab two different Caesars under the direction of Herbert Wise.

It’s hard not to feel a chill when you see Jonathan Scott-Taylor as the boy Lucius.  BECAUSE HE’S THE ANTI-CHRIST – THE LORD OF DARKNESS PROPHESIED IN REVELATION – DAMIEN THORN FROM OMEN II.

Typecasting can be a bitch.

Certain actors appear over and over again in the 1978-1985 BBC Shakespeare, and Charles Gray is delightfully one of them.  Gray’s Caesar is bulky but insecure, like a great building erected on narrow foundations.  His posturings, his nervous reversals and his delivery of those insufferably illeisms that make him so stabbable, communicate a sense of insecurity rather than absolute power.

Virginia McKenna and Elizabeth Spriggs are here to remind us that there were women in Ancient Rome – something easy to forget in the context of this most severely patriarchal of  stories.  Even as McKenna’s Portia protests an extremity of marital devotion, she sounds like a voice of protest against the exclusion of half the human race from the blood-thirsty determinations afoot.

Keith Mitchell, most famous to viewers as Henry VIII appears initially as a shirtless braggart of an Antony who can’t help but remind you of a young James T. Kirk.  (One should of course be reminded of the fact that Cicero in his Philippics did indeed accuse Anthony of being “naked” – at the very least improperly dressed – while conducting the diadem offering ceremony.)  He grows in stature through the play, and he is prone to be strategically loud in useful ways.  The word “Havoc” is especially loud.  There’s a cruelty to his great “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” which suggests a sort of UKIPish delight in being a patrician who can manipulate the very plebs he so utterly despises.  He manages to be crafty even when drunk, and he dominates the proscription scene with Octavian and Lepidus.

In some productions, Brutus and Cassius achieve something like equal billing.  Not this one.  David Collings’ performance as Cassius is efficient and persuasive, but this production, and the cameras at Wise’s disposal are interested in Brutus rather than Cassius.  In some productions, Brutus and Antony achieve something like equal billing (Mason-Brando?).  Not this one.  This production is dominated throughout by Richard Pasco who may be something like a perfect Brutus.  A serious actor in a serious role.

As I’ve already noted, Richard Pasco was the actor I was most likely to see onstage when I was young.  His deep set eyes and powerful voice remind me of some of my most cherished theatre-going memories.  Pasco’s Brutus is a study in restrained passion, or perhaps the passion of restraint itself.  Pasco’s Brutus is committed to a style, a self-fashioning of existential purity.  Republicanism is, for Brutus, a means whereby human beings can live authentically.  For Brutus, a world in which men (he does mean “men”, doesn’t he?) cannot look each other in the eye and tell one another what they believe to be the truth, is not a world that is worth living in.

And when you look Richard Pasco in the eye, you feel that you’re looking a long, long way.

Here, by the way, are my thoughts on a few other BBC Shakespeare productions…

King John:

Here’s Richard II:

The BBC Richard III could not be more unlike the BBC Richard II…

Here is Henry VI Part III

Henry VI. Part Two:

Henry VI, Part One:

Here’s my review of the BBC Henry V:

Here are a few more blogs musing on this old BBC project…

BBC Henry IV, Part TWO:

But here’s my review of the BBC Henry IV Part ONE:

And the BBC Antony and Cleopatra:

And the Cymbeline:

Not to mention a somber but intensely homoerotic Coriolanus:

Here’s Comedy of Errors:

And… All’s Well That End’s Well:

Helen Mirren in the BBC As You Like It:


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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Reblogging this because I’ve been rereading Cicero, and I originally missed the fact that Anthony’s “Shirtless Kirk” look is indeed warranted by Cicero’s Philippics…

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