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Friday 15 December 2017

Much ado about politics

Julius Caesar (Sunday, BBC4) Labour's Way (Tuesday, RTE1) Veep (Monday, Sky Atlantic)

Nowadays Shakespeare plays are regularly given idiosyncratic new settings (Richard III in the fascist thirties, Macbeth in Laois County Council, Othello in a mobile Bureau de Change). Sometimes these updates are tiresome, but the BBC4/Royal Shakespeare Society placement of Julius Caesar in a post-revolutionary African nation works surprisingly well.

That said, certain things always strike me when I see Shakespeare plays on television. The main one is that Shakespeare has, by modern standards, a bad case of explainy-itus with characters repeatedly spelling out and clarifying plot points and discussing in detail off-stage battles.



Hungry

Some of this was custom and some necessity (CGI wasn't invented until the 17th century), but much of it seems wilful by today's standards.

Nowadays a television producer would insist that Caesar's rejection of the crown be shown onscreen instead of simply being described by Casca ('show don't tell' is a television mantra) and would wonder why other characters were wasting words describing things that were happening right beside them.

But the truth is that Shakespeare used words as a special effect. When Caesar comments on Cassius's "lean and hungry look" in the first act, the audience then projects these qualities on to Cassius for the rest of the play (like CGI!). Shakespeare's linguistic effects coupled with some powerful performances, and an urgency garnered by this production's filming during rehearsals for the stage play, mean that this is as hard-hitting now as it was in 1599.

And so, once more, spurned yesterday's man Cassius (Cyril Nri) manipulates angst-ridden idealist Brutus (Patterson Joseph) into betraying his leader before being outwitted by Blairite charisma-machine Mark Antony (Ray Fearon).

It's essentially politics as usual. Indeed, the powerful scene in which Brutus is undermined before the mob by Antony will seem familiar to fans of Labour party conferences in the 1980s. And when Brutus says "There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune", he's probably referring to the spring tide of 1992.

RTE could learn a bit about story structure from Shakespeare. The title of Labour's Way evokes Eamon Gilmore's pre-election hint that the people could go Labour's Way or Frankfurt's Way (forgetting to mention that they were going the same direction), which suggests this would be a documentary with a strong narrative arc. But it's not.

There is no clear dramatic sense here of where the party came from, the personalities that formed it, or the principles that it was built upon. The facts of the first 50 years are rattled through. The absence of Labour as a strong force in Irish history could be a compelling story in itself, but they don't tell it.



Flounder

The lockout gets a walk-on part. James Connolly waves hello from the windows of the GPO (not literally). The Mother and Child Act cameos. Leaders come and go, coalitions flounder, and comedian Brendan O'Carroll talks (movingly) about his TD mother. But there's no narrative, just a list.

The producers all but say: "we're not really interested in this stuff, all the best footage we have is from the 1980s." And sure enough in the late seventies things slow down, characters come into focus, the soundtrack gets funkier and it turns into Reeling in the Years with extra facial hair. Next week might be better.

You'd learn more from Armando Iannucci's funny and profane US satire Veep about a fast-talking, conscience-light US Vice President played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. In the first episode, she mis-signed a condolence card for the family of "one of the best-respected perverts in the senate", accidentally used the word "retard" publicly and ended the day with the words: "What colossal f***-ups are we dealing with tomorrow?" Now that's what I call politics.

Julius Caesar HHHHI

Labour's Way HHIII

Veep HHHHI

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