Julius Caesar – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Angus Jackson

Reviewer:  James Garrington

Watching Julius Caesar is a reminder of how little has changed in the 400 years since the play was written – or indeed in the past 2000 years or so. We have a man whose ambition for power seems to stretch beyond what his colleagues find acceptable. We have the people being influenced this way and that by the power of oratory, and by promises which turn out to be lies. We have men branded as heroes one minute, traitors the next, and we have innocent people being attacked because they happen to share a name with one of the so-called traitors.

In a time when modernising Shakespeare seems to be in vogue, this is a traditional Caesar. The stage is dominated by a vast portico of the Senate building and togas and tunics are the order of the day, leaving us in no doubt about where and when this is set. Despite the scale of the scenery, the effect is mostly clean and uncluttered with few props to get in the way of the plot – which along with the clear diction, makes this production a good introduction if you want to get to know the play.

Some of the casting, on the other hand, is not in the traditional mould. Andrew Woodall’s Caesar comes across less like the battle-hardened general and more like a middle-aged politician – one with a domineering personality and violent mood swings which make him an unpleasant and unpredictable character with an arrogant sense of his own importance. By contrast, the main conspirators seem very young, so the effect feels a little like a student uprising and you have to remind yourself that this is Julius Caesar, not Les Miserables.

James Corrigan’s Mark Antony has a boyish charm and silver tongue as he sways the crowd to his will with promises of riches. He delivers the famous funeral speech with a mixture of traditional oratory and modern naturalism that should feel strange but somehow works. It is particularly effective with the house lights still up during this whole funeral sequence, drawing the audience in and making it feel as though you are part of the whole proceedings – aided by some very good crowd work by the ensemble. Standing opposite Antony are another youthful pair, Alex Waldmann (Brutus) and Martin Hutson (Cassius) as the main conspirators. The two work well together and the tent scene before the battle provides another highlight of the piece, a pleasing break in the sometimes less engaging section of script after the highlight of the funeral.

Director Angus Jackson has managed to dig out a lot of the comedy buried in the text, with some nice touches helping to create some lighter moments in an otherwise heavy play. The set, designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, is ponderous but effective and flexible, though the transformation from Rome to battlefield seems rather more cumbersome than is usual these days, causing a rare break in the flow. Tim Mitchell’s well-judged lighting enhances the feel of proceedings with a very atmospheric thunderstorm creating a backdrop as the conspirators meet on the steps of the Capitol.

Entertaining but not outstanding, if you want a Caesar that will help you to understand more about the play and all the twists in the plot, then this would be a reasonable place to start.

Runs until 9 September 2017 | Image: Helen Maybanks

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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