New York’s recent explosively controversial Shakespeare in the Park was All About Trump, but at Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre there was a rather more British take on Shakespeare’s perennially politicised play “Julius Caesar”

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Lynn Farleigh (Calpurnia) Julian Glover (Julius Caesar) - Photo by Simon Purse
Photos by Simon Purse

Veteran actor Julian Glover’s Caesar is no Trump, but the fact that he’s beloved by the young while feared and hated by the recently-young does put one in mind of another JC – Jeremy Corbyn – and this production definitely takes its energy from today’s (30 June 2017) sense of post-election turbulence. There’s even an “Oh, Julius Caesar!” refrain from the mob in the opening scene.
These things never quite fit, of course. Arrogant and vain, Glover’s JC would never be mistaken for an allotment-tending socialist. You get the sense that his military victories and territorial conquests have made him a bit mad.

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Afolabi Alli (Metellus) and Rudolphe Mdlongwa (Cinna) - Photo by Simon Purse
Indeed, for all his belief in his own godlike prowess, there’s a King Lear-like frailty to this Caesar. The one glimpse of his political instincts – when he singles out Cassius as dangerous – merely confirms that his radar is working but his defences are down.

Apart from Caesar, Calpurnia (Lynn Farleigh) and the Soothsayer (John Hartoch), the rest of the characters are all played by students from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and there’s plenty of ascending talent on display. Brutus is portrayed by Freddie Bowerman as a ramrod-straight patrician whose much-discussed honour never quite masks the suggestion that he’s acting out of vanity. As Cassius, Edward Stone is an oily George Osborne-type. A persuasive political realist, he needs Brutus on board for the conspiracy to succeed – but his deference to Brutus will prove a fatal flaw.

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Alice Kerrigan (Cinna the Poet) with company - Photo by Simon Purse
Casca is one of Shakespeare’s most marvellously bitchy creations and, played with icy disdain by Eleanor House, gets quite a few laughs (in the early scenes, that is – Casca is also the conspirator who initiates the stabbing of Caesar). The gender-swapped casting means this Julius Caesar takes place in a world where wives like Calpurnia and Portia (Sarah Livingston) are essentially enslaved by the patriarchy, and yet it is simultaneously permissible for women to have high-flying political careers and fight in the civil war. Most significantly, Octavius becomes Octavia, played by Rosy McEwen with emotionless hauteur, reminiscent of a killer robot from the Terminator films.

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Freddie Bowerman (Brutus) - Photo by Simon Purse
Mark Antony is played by Ross O’Donnellan as a party animal with a broad Irish accent, a fact which seemed to greatly amuse the two blokes sitting next to me. I thought it was a good choice for a character whom the conspirators underestimate until he strikes them with deadly force. The scene after Caesar’s assassination where Antony insists on shaking hands with the blood-soaked killers worked particularly well. It starts off as desperate survival technique, but it allows us to see Antony gradually get the measure of each of his opponents, and begin to realise he can beat them.

Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic - Ross O'Donnellan (Mark Antony) - Photo by Simon Purse
The mob scenes and battles are skilfully deployed in this lean, fast-moving production. The supporting cast all have a lot to do, playing multiple characters and at times literally running riot. The modern-day dress code of business suits and military fatigues is similar to the Ralph Fiennes Coriolanus film. But director Simon Dormandy’s Caesar has strengths of its own as it points, Soothsayer-like, to the consequences of political meltdown.

Julius Caesar ran at Bristol Old Vic from 9 June to 1 July 2017.
Go here for more on Bristol Old Vic.
Go here for more on Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Comments

  1. I enjoyed this review, though comparing George Osborne to Cassius seems a bit harsh. I can’t picture them as being alike despite the unusual turn that former Chancellor, Cassius (rather Osborne) is now doing great work at the London Evening Standard pointing out flaws of the Conservative leaders. On the consequences of political meltdown, a review of the New York production by Jyotsna G Singh in the New European newspaper and on the Conversation website made a similar useful point: “During politically contentious times, it’s befitting that we turn more – rather than less – to Shakespeare.” Meanwhile the same 23 June edition of the New European has a 5 star review of the Harold Pinter Theatre Hamlet, directed by Robert Icke. Concentrating on Andrew Scott’s performance, Martin McQuillan concludes “It is not a question of whether Scott will ever escape the the character of Moriarty. It is whether he will ever better this Hamlet.” It also includes the classic line “I often think everyone could have been happy Hamlet had just been allowed to go back to Wittenberg to be glum on his own.” p. 36.
    PS Another in the park Julius Caeasar with modern political setting is being staged in Grosvenor Park, Chester, England, that also ran to great reviews at Storyhouse, the brand new public library, cinema and theatre, Chester. @StoryhouseLive

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