27th May, 2017, matinee
Apart from the basic plot (thanks to Sparknotes) and reviews of the toga-fest that is the RSC’s current production in Stratford-Upon-Avon, I knew hardly anything about Shakespeare’s play before seeing this production. New Artistic Director Robert Hastie’s contemporary set Julius Caesar allows us to invite comparisons with contemporary politics without him having to crowbar an ill-fitting concept onto it. The result is a fast moving production that reveals the power of rhetoric to win or lose a crowd and that we too easily make politics into a case of binaries. Modern dress highlights the play’s themes that are at stake in today’s world: the nature of democracy, political betrayal, deceit, populism, and the power of acting to the career politician.
For the first three acts, Ben Stones’ design creates the ugly neutrality and professionalism of a senate. The semiotics are those of 21st century politics: imposing furniture and plush boardroom aesthetics. The Crucible’s usual lights that glitter like stars over the auditorium are replaced by rows of strip lights. The stage is a red tiled carpet surrounded by sunken desks with microphones and leather office chairs. Wooden panels complete with a Roman insignia stretch out into the auditorium and even the front of house staff’s black uniforms with red sashes possibly match the senators’ garb. Hastie’s aim, I guess, is to bring us right into the action. The house lights are on during some of the senate scenes and characters from crowds to soldiers to Mark Antony when delivering his great funeral speech roam the audience. I’m not fully convinced at how successful those efforts were to make the audience complicit however it shows Hastie experimenting with the possibilities of the space in what is a very confident and accessible first production. In the second half, the design reflects the messy chaos of Rome after Caesar’s death: the curtains are thrown back, lights flicker, rubbish and piles of broken office chairs cover the stage. And perhaps most startling: the bodies of three conspirators hang from above (aesthetically not unlike those in the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale). Johanna Town’s lighting goes from impressively bathing harsh white light onto the characters, reflecting the exposure of public life, to sometimes casting shadows onto the back walls.
There is some particularly neat casting in Hastie’s production. Samuel West returns to the Crucible for the first time since he was AD, his first production being Brenton’s The Romans in Britain. His Brutus is complex and slippery. When we first see him, he is composed, articulate and seemingly balanced. Later, in the private space of his home, he’s less sure. Barefoot and dressed in sweats, toing and froing tormented by his decision and its political consequences. And when the deed is done and he’s giving his speech at Caesar’s funeral, he’s no longer confident. Fumbling with cue cards and way above the crowd on a balcony, he is not the orator that we hear he is. Compare this to Mark Antony’s speech, and we see why the crowd are won over by his rhetoric. Firstly, he’s on the same level as the revellers; he is of the people. Roaming amongst them – and us – he manipulates them skilfully, holding up Caesar’s supposed will and at one moment opening the coffin lid and holding the ghastly corpse of the stabbed statesman. It’s a brave move which shows his confidence and adeptness of being able to win over the crowd. It’s a scene wonderfully performed by West, Elliot Cowan and a committed community company.
But even though we can draw parallels with Trump and Brexit (for example) there are easy answers in the play. As Emma Smith asks in her programme article (there are a couple of excellent pieces in the programme), are Brutus and Cassius terrorists or freedom fighters? What exactly are Caesar’s motives? Here, he seems honourable as portrayed by Jonathan Hyde. He even seems a bit pathetic at one point, chasing his younger wife around trying to get his shoes from her. Zoe Waites presents Cassius as having the raw ambition (perhaps slightly hot headed) which she knows she needs to pair with Brutus’ experience.
Doubling Brutus’ wife, Portia, and Octavius (Chipo Chung) is a nice idea. It hints that Brutus’ betrayal is more than a political one. It also begins to solve the problem of what exactly happens to Portia, who otherwise disappears apparently so distressed from Brutus’ recent aloofness. There’s a hardworking company also made up of Pandora Colin, who speaks verse so naturally, and Royce Pierreson. Lily Nichol’s soothsayer (depicted here as a single mum wandering the streets) also stands out amid all the suits.
Hastie’s production is sharp, has the pace of a thriller and brings Shakespeare’s play down from the gods to the murky world of politics.
Julius Caesar plays at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre until 10th June.