Writer: Gareth Cadwallader
Director: Mary Franklin
Reviewer: Harry Stern
New plays are notoriously, gloriously unpredictable. There is always a sense of trepidation in the hearts and minds of the creative teams that bring them to life and of audiences that witness their birth. Some plays are triumphant on their first appearance, others are slow burners and some would have been better left unproduced. The real challenge is to determine which is most likely before the event. All too often the cherished hopes and dreams of the teams involved end up trampled in the dust. Sadly this offering from the pen of Gareth Cadwallader falls into this last category.
It is difficult to say whether the fault lies with the writing or with the production, but there is precious little in this bizarre and awkward evening to set the pulse racing or to etch a smile on the faces of a discerning audience. The problem appears to lie in both camps in equal measure though the evening is mired in a lack of clarity that makes it hard to tell. Notwithstanding the laudable policy of bringing new work to the Capital’s newest fringe venue, the decision should probably have been taken to withdraw the production before it was exposed to the cruel gaze of public scrutiny. But it is easy to be wise after the event and new work, the lifeblood of the theatre, should always be supported.
We are on the eve of the murder of Julius Caesar. Cleopatra is in Rome – an historically accurate though little known fact. During the evening and on the morning of the next day Shelley Long’s schizophrenic Queen is visited by a who’s who of Roman hierarchy. First comes Hamish MacDougall’s dour Marcus Brutus on his way, it transpires to do the dirty deed. Next a rampant Mark Anthony, in the competent hands of usually excellent Mark Edel-Hunt, pays sensual court, not only to his exotic Queen but also to Charmian her equally ravenous handmaiden played by Marianne Chase. Finally, as Caesar’s blood flows through the multiple stab wounds inflicted by Brutus, Cassius and their cronies, Richard Mason’s juvenile Octavius, soon to be Caesar, comes to call. Why they visit and what they want is unclear. Cleopatra herself whirls, snarls, pouts, accedes and denies, exhibiting the volatility made famous by her Shakespearean and other literary reputation. Yet what she wants and why she wants it is as unclear as the motivation of her visitors. She is accompanied by Iras, a vowel away from Shakespeare’s similar servile character and by the eunuch Mardian. They fulfil a function, it just isn’t clear what it is or why they are doing it.
They whirl around Amy Job’s paper strewn set with little purpose and even less clarity so that ultimate impression is one of muddle and confusion. Perhaps that is what was required but the result is that the piece lacks narrative and dramatic drive leaving this member of the audience, at least, utterly at sea.
For such a potentially unstable and heightened situation the cast give a curiously muted and constricted set of performances. The small performance space doesn’t need explosive performances but the universally underpowered speaking finds one craning forward in one’s seat to try and hear. A directorial choice? If so, a bewildering one. And when Caesar’s murder is accompanied by the endless wailing of police sirens which every member of the cast pointedly ignores, the imminent end of an uncomfortable evening is happily within reach.