William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar could easily be set in 2023.
The themes of power, corruption and changing allegiances are being played out as we speak. Three Prime Ministers over a period of four years and one of these lasted for one month, and this means that we have seen our fair share of power grabs, arguments and blame games.
Director Atri Banerjee
Director Atri Banerjee made some big and bold choices in his production of Hobson’s Choice at the Royal Exchange a few years ago and it was well received. It managed to appeal to new audiences and still bring in those with familiar with Harold Brighouse’s original 1916 text and not alienate them. It was delivered with respect and a willingness to accept changes were needed.
Here he brings in some additions that work really well. Namely having actors using British Sign Language when in the presence of Lucius (played with delicacy by Jamal Ajala) and placing characters in the balcony and within the stalls means that we see where the rot begins to set in for Caesar, as his grip on reality begins to fade.
The cast delivers their lines with such assuredness that even when the play begins to lose it’s focus by trying to do too much at once, you are drawn to what is being said.
Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddleston
The colour red has connotations of romance, anger and passion, so seeing characters smeared with rich red blood worked wonderfully well in Josie Rourke’s beautifully bleak production of Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddleston.
Banerjee decides to use black blood here and even though it might represent oil and the big corporate companies associated with it, or tar, which is difficult to remove, it stains these character’s souls – aesthetically it looks like they have been out in the garden on a Sunday painting creosote on the fence.
It also means that scenes of murder, death and destruction pass you by without any of the shock and awe that you expect.
Stained shirts represent bodies and by this point, you realise that changes that bring you something different to the norm require the ability to bring you something new in terms of interpretation and feeling. But when a change occurs simply because it can, what you are left with is a stained shirt looking like it is in need of Persil tablet and a hot wash.
Rosanna Vize’s cube-like set spins out of control and succeeds in making the characters look ‘boxed in’ by their determination and narrow views. But watching two stagehands pushing it takes you out of the narrative. If two actors in costume did this whilst speaking to each other, in character – the effect would be less distracting and keep you there ‘in the moment.’
Rosanna Vize and Tomas Palmer’s costumes are so ordinary that some characters look like bank managers who have ditched their ties because they are taking a walk out of the office at lunchtime.
Others look like they have received a smart/casual wedding invite and cannot quite decide how to interpret it. But none of this speaks power.
Nicholas Hynter’s production at the Bridge Theatre in 2018 highlighted populism and rebellion through the dress codes. Here, characters do end up fading into the background, as everything feels too monochrome.
Annabel Baldwin (Cassius), Thalissa Teixeira (Brutus) and William Robinson (Mark Antony) are very impressive, as they really grasp Shakespeare’s text by the scruff of the neck when they have to, and dial it down to convey beauty during the play’s quieter moments. And Niamh Finlay is great as The Soothsayer, who often says what the audience is thinking.
Nigel Barrett is Julius Caesar and his character is done a disservice, as he ends up lost in a play which features flash mob-style dance scenes, complete with overdone panting and projections of images which are far less impressive than the real thing.
An ambitious production
Add a community chorus and screams which make you snigger instead of chill you to the bone, and you are left with an ambitious production which is gutsy enough to rip up the rule book and start again.
As I leave the theatre and see the black blood smeared over the characters, I am reminded of Marmite which divides people. You either love it or hate it. And that’s a good place to finish this review.
Julius Caesar is at the Lowry until 24th June and can be booked here.