Writer: Darren Raymond
Director: Darren Raymond
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
In an inner city school, an earnest young teacher known only as ‘Miss’ is attempting to engage her students in the study and performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Eager to get them to appreciate the play, she addresses each pupil by their character’s name, encouraging them to infuse their everyday language with Shakespearean poetry – all the time unaware of the parallels between the play’s themes and the tragedies unfolding in the children’s own lives.
So begins Rise and Fall, Intermission Youth Theatre’s pleasingly well crafted take on themes of honour, suspicion and betrayal. Drawing such clear similarities between a Shakespeare play and its players can be a tricky act to pull off, but there is a deftness here, helped by its young cast rooting the schoolchildren’s characters in reality rather than caricature. And yet still, archetypes are put to good use: in particular, Kwame Reed’s class clown Mark is full of cheery bluster, his guileless incompetence making his Mark Anthony a lesson in bad acting. Here too are the mean girls, the beauty queens, the bullies and the bullied, all drawn believably.
Events kick off when alpha male Jay (an arresting Eugene Ishani) transfers to the school where he is seen as on the other side of the local gang rivalry. Swiftly given the rôle of Caesar, Jay’s immediate electoral campaign to become head boy is perhaps the point at which Darren Raymond’s script requires most suspension of disbelief. But given the commitment of the cast, as the lines between their reality and their play start to blur, this plot device begins to pay off. Ishani imbues Jay with a vulnerable authority, never shaking the impression that his haters’ doubts about him may be true, yet offering glimpses of a complexity of character that muddies motives and can only deepen the eventual tragedy.
The calmness in the eye of the school maelstrom is bookish, popular Elijah (Tré Medley), whose stoicism is first introduced in the show’s beautiful opening monologue, a eulogy to a fallen class mate and family member. Throughout the first act, it is Elijah who seeks to ease tension, who mediates and breaks up fights both as himself and in his guise of Brutus. Medley plays Elijah as a young man who becomes burdened by the rôle of peacemaker, leading to a transformation in Act II that is as believable as it is chillingly disappointing.
Given the rôle of Cassius, Madeleine Manace Bafoku’s Zoe perhaps struggles the most with the show’s many transitions into Shakespearean dialogue. But when speaking with a modern voice, she becomes central to the play’s most shocking and moving scene: reciting in calm, poetic monologue about the steps her junkie mother goes through as she shoots up. It’s a stark reminder that we live in a world where many children are required to grow up too soon, as well as providing believable motivation for Zoe’s later actions.
Anybody who knows the story of Julius Caesar will have a sense of the way the schoolchildren’s storyline is heading. That it follows the predicted path is no surprise: that it does so in parallel to Reed’s Mark Anthony, finally grasping the import of his most famous oration, provides a moving conclusion.
Rise and Fall’s biggest fault is that it ends as Caesar falls, where of course Shakespeare went on to examine the fallout of the conspirators’ crime. But this is a play that is designed not to end at the final curtain, but to continue with post-show discussions and community outreach, discussing the implications of knife crime in today’s youth culture. To this end, Rise and Fall finds its place between entertainment and a starter for discussion, and it fits that place well.
Runs until 21 November 2015 | Image: Pete Le May