Technically, Titus Andronicus — what with its dismemberment, flesh pie, and clown killing — is Shakespeare’s goriest play. But looking at all the blood spurting and spouting about at the Park Avenue Armory, you’d swear it was Julius Caesar.
The Royal Shakespeare Company production begins with a bout of good old-fashioned limb-twisting, body-slamming Roman wrestling, so you know you’re in for three hours of down-and-dirty tragedy. You’re also in for a pretty fascinating staging — if you can tolerate multiple stabbings, a couple of decapitated heads, and veritable geysers of blood. The suicides are slightly sloppy, and the killings are unflinchingly brutal — especially Caesar’s. ”Let’s kill him boldly but not harshly,” says Brutus (Sam Troughton). ”Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods.” Then all the conspirators bust out their knives and descend on clueless Caesar (Greg Hicks) like something out of a Chucky movie. Even poor Cinna the poet (Gruffudd Glyn) — who’s usually carried off to a thankless offstage death — gets a gruesome front-and-center demise. (The script says ”tear him to pieces,” so…) It’s slasher-film Shakespeare, and I’ll confess I loved the grisliness.
But director Lucy Bailey’s Julius Caesar isn’t entirely guts and gore. At its core is perhaps the strongest and longest-lasting friendship Shakespeare ever wrote for two tragic figures, Brutus and Cassius (John Mackay). Troughton and Mackay make wonderfully sympathetic murderers, Troughton in particular. He’s using a cane due to a knee injury he sustained during a performance of the RSC’s Romeo and Juliet earlier this month, and he’s really using the cane. It lends his Brutus an almost indisputable dignity (though it does undercut his superior stance during the I’m-a-better-soldier spat with Cassius).
As good as Bailey is at making mincemeat of a soldier, she’s less successful with ensemble scenes. The silent weeping and wild gesticulating during Caesar?s burial seriously distracts from Mark Anthony’s ”friends, Romans, countrymen” speech (delivered by a terrifically charismatic Darrell D’Silva). The ensemble looks less like a group of mourners than a troupe of mimes trying to rustle up a few drachma between political uprisings. And the production relies a bit too heavily on William Dudley’s video projections: A rendering of Caesar’s palace borders on cheesy, though the sight of Rome burning in the background provides a clever bit of foreshadowing. All that’s missing is the fiddle player. B+
(Tickets: 212-721-6500 or lincolncenterfestival.com)