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.

The lively, eclectic and much-loved Bristol Shakespeare Festival runs throughout July. Shakespeare Magazine’s Editor Pat Reid has previewed the Festival (and interviewed Festival Manager Jacqui Ham) for The Bristol Magazine

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Image: The Handlebards

Pat Reid writes:
Shakespeare Magazine is based in the city of Bristol, in the South West of England. We’re 70 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon (with which we share the River Avon) and 120 miles from London. But we’re very lucky to have a Shakespeare tradition all of our own. You may have heard of the historic Bristol Old Vic Theatre, along with its prestigious Theatre School. We also have a modern Shakespeare Tradition pioneered by the Tobacco Factory Theatres. And we have no less than four pubs named after Shakespeare!

But perhaps the most exciting event of all for a Bristol-based Shakespeare fan like myself is the annual Bristol Shakespeare Festival. This year the Festival is bigger than ever, with an impressive array of touring companies and one-off events taking over the city during the whole of July. I’m delighted to have once again been asked to preview Bristol Shakespeare Festival for The Bristol Magazine. I hope that it will encourage Bristolians to come out and enjoy a Shakespeare show. And I hope that visitors from further afield will also come and experience what Bristol has to offer. I can certainly promise that it will be “gert lush”, as we say in Bristol!

Read the full article in The Bristol Magazine here.

Last month, stage veteran Timothy West played a King Lear at the mercy of powerful women in Bristol Old Vic’s production of Shakespeare’s most brutal tragedy

Bristol Old Vic photographs by Simon Annand and Jack Offord

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A new chapter for the Bristol Old Vic theatre has begun as it opens up its back stage spaces to house a temporary bar and box office, whilst the front of house and studio theatre undergo extensive renovations. The audience is now invited into the building near the stage door, and already it feels like a more cutting-edge and urban theatre, in line with its exciting programming.

To begin this phase in the theatre’s history Tom Morris has directed a new production of King Lear using a cast of past and present students of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. The majority of parts are taken by current students, sometimes two per part with alternate performances using different actors in the same role.

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Alongside them are three established British actors, all ex-students of the school – Timothy West plays Lear, Stephanie Cole is the Fool, and David Hargreaves is Gloucester.

It’s a brutal and moving telling of the story, and whilst there is no shying away from the physical and emotional violence that runs through the play, this King finds much comfort in the tender friendship with his gentle, fond and probing Fool. The unusual choice to cast a woman in this role – and one seemingly close to Lear’s own age – as well as the presence of a female doctor with him for much of the play, works brilliantly.

He is often a solitary male figure surrounded by women who seem to control and direct his life.

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Watching the three experienced performers alongside so many at the beginning of their careers makes the inter-generational conflict in the play all the more acute. And despite his power and command as an actor, once the storm hits there is something extremely moving about seeing an 81-year-old Timothy West playing a King who braves the extreme elements.

There is a sense of true danger as a man who really could be destroyed by the forces of nature is intent on defying them and steps out into the wilderness.

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In the secondary story, the care and love shown to Gloucester by his son Edgar shines in the beautifully-played scene when the loyal son guides his blinded father to an imaginary cliff to jump from. This is in stark contrast to the scheming plans of Edmund, which he shares unashamedly with the audience.

This is a production which really does find its drama in the relationships between children and their parents. The driven, fiery and focussed needs of the young generation contrast with the high-status but powerless state of the older characters.

Anna Orton’s set cracks and crumbles as Lear’s world falls apart and the conflict in his family and country deepens. This leaves the huge upstage area exposed for the second half of the play, making both Lear and Gloucester’s journeys feel more dangerous as their vulnerable figures are set against the vast area.

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The production makes good use of the theatre’s original sounds effects, with the large wooden drums of the wind wheel and rain machine manually turned to accompany the storm in full view of the audience. Acapella singing from the company becomes hypnotic and threatening as the tragic end draws near.

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Amongst all the demolition and architects’ plans in this fast developing and historic theatre (it’s just celebrated its 250th birthday), time stands still for this powerful telling of King Lear’s demise.

Something unique and important happens on a very human and intimate level in the auditorium – between the actors, between the actors and the audience, and between members of the audience too. The standing ovation for this excellent cast and creative team was well deserved.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School present a revitalised production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Redgrave Theatre, full of humour, dance and music

[Images by Toby Farrow]

Directed by Donnacadh O’Briain this comic re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest amused and delighted the audience, showing off the talented Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduates.

One of the tricky things about staging The Tempest is the play’s undertone of slapstick comedy, which at times jars with its more serious and magical elements. This BOVTS production at Clifton’s Redgrave Theatre decided to fully embrace the play’s comic and musical elements, updating them for 2016 with theatrical aplomb.

This was entirely fitting: by embracing the play’s more frivolous elements the production payed homage to the play’s rich afterlife, while seeking to enthral a new generation of Tempest-lovers.

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The farcical subplot was tackled by casting Stephano and Trinculo as wacky entertainers – swearing and coming out into the audience singing and clutching wine bottles. Jac Baylis played a camp Trinculo in white patent leather heels, matched by Tom Byrne’s comic and amped-up Stephano.

The pair’s jokes were provocative and cheeky, fully updated for their 2016 audience. But Shakespeare’s wordplay was never far – the comic explanation of the laboured ‘jerkin’ joke was clever, and reminded us of the original text’s aim to entertain.

In contrast, the play’s main plot stayed clear of these absurd elements –the lovers left to their innocent courtship, and Ariel, Prospero and Caliban locked in their eternal power struggle.

Danann McAleer was a gentle and wise Prospero, whereas Lily Donovan’s Miranda was full of emotion and youthful sensuality. Corey Montague-Sholay’s Ferdinand was young and playful, perfectly in sync with Miranda – childish squeals punctuating their lovers’ games.

Ariel (Dylan Wood) was eerie and his interactions with Prospero were profoundly moving, especially during the final ‘freeing’ scene. Ariel sang and moved beautifully, in contrast with Caliban (Josh Finan) who was a much earthier, boil-covered version of himself.

Caliban’s drunken antics with Stephano and Trinculo were funny, yet also poignant in his desperate enthusiasm for freedom. The spirited cast kept perfectly in time with Shakespeare’s tempo.

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The set design was simple and effective – suspended trees and a cloudy sky background representing the unspoilt nature of the isle. When the Neapolitan aristos arrived on the island, dressed in shiny shoes, suits and Ray-Bans, they looked wonderfully lost in this austere simplicity. Their masculine japes and peacock-like pruning were funny, but Gonzalo (Joey Akubeze) wasn’t as ridiculous as he is sometimes made out to be, cutting a more poignant, dignified figure here.

The island’s magic was threatening, weird and wonderful. Magic spirits were variously represented by hooded, chanting and dancing actors. The smallest of movements were used to create tension and suspense.

The magical masque commissioned by Prospero to celebrate Ferdinand’s and Miranda’s nuptials took a dark turn when it ended with a birth – Prospero rushing to the aid of the apparently lifeless ‘mother’ as Miranda cradled the ‘baby’. It was an interesting nod to Miranda’s absentee mother and her possible fate, perfectly timed at the cusp of Miranda’s marriage and burgeoning sexual maturity.