Julius Caesar – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Reviewer: Simon Tavener

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Atri Banerjee

There are nights in the theatre that surprise and delight. There are nights in the theatre that baffle andfrustrate. As a rule, trips to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) fall into the former category. On this occasion, this production of Julius Caesar is very definitely in the latter.

One of the characteristics of the current season at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is the decision to do away with companies that work together over a number of productions and to focus on standalone teams. This undoubtedly brings a greater number of opportunities for more actors and creatives, but it is also does away with ‘Company’ part of the RSC which has always been a key strength in the ongoing success of the organisation. Looking at the team for this production, only three of the cast have worked with the RSC before and the director, Atri Banerjee, is also new to Stratford. And, in many ways, this lack of experience does seem at the heart of the issues with the production.

Julius Caesar is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most political plays. The text captures the febrile atmosphere of Rome at a point in history where everything was in a state of flux, where past norms had been overturned and new dangers lay ahead. Banerjee has taken the decision to update the action to the modern day – not an uncommon choice made by directors seeking to show the contemporary relevance of a four-hundred-year-old play – but as part of that process, the production has lost a clear sense of the society in which the action takes place.

The audience is left without an understanding of the nature of Caesar’s tyranny, his popular appeal or, indeed, the forces that were employed in achieving and sustaining power. Without those fundamental underpinnings, the production lacks the clarity necessary to understand the motivations of the conspirators whose actions are so central to the piece.

The design also fails to help support the audience in their understanding of the action. Costumes do not give any clue as to the status or role of any of the characters. The set gives little sense of time or place.

When it comes to the acting, it is clear that the cast has a lot of talent and their commitment to the production is absolute. However, the direction they have been given does not support them in delivering what is needed to guide the audience through this subtle and challenging text. Too often the stagecraft feels clunky and, sadly, occasionally amateurish. The use of choreographed movement too frequently holds up the action without enhancing anything for the audience. Physical theatre is a very useful tool when it comes to Shakespeare but it has to make sense beyond the rehearsal room. Here, it very much does not.

The text is, largely, clearly spoken. A number of key characters are, however, over-demonstrative in their use of gesture to reinforce keywords and phrases. There is no need for actors who fully understand and inhabit their roles to ‘saw the air too much with your hand’ as Hamlet once did sagely advise.

There are a number of key speeches in the play where a clear understanding of, and facility for, rhetoric is essential. Only one of the actors tasked with these set-piece moments fully rises to the challenge. William Robinson gives the stand-out performance of the night as Mark Antony. He is absolutely at home with the language and the techniques necessary to win over an audience. He is a talent to watch and someone who should return to Stratford many times in the future.

There is much to enjoy about Matthew Bulgo’s Casca, one of the conspirators. He again is alert to the text and the opportunities it gives him to engage with the audience.

Overall this is a production that feels like a work in progress. There are, perhaps, too many ideas and it needs more time for the finished form of the piece to emerge.

Runs until: 8 April 2023 and on tour

The Reviews Hub Score

Unfinished and unsatisfying

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The Reviews Hub - Central

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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  1. A truly awful experience. I sat in disbelief hoping it would get better. It didn’t. Cross gender casting rarely works, and it certainly does not in this case. There’s so much more that could be said about the casting, the set, and the costumes but I don’t wish to come across as unkind. I think the cast did the best they could with what they had to work with. I was left with the impression that the director was using this production as a means to share his worldview but I wish he had kept it to himself, and just given the audience a play by Shakespeare. It was barely recognisable as such. It was just awful.

  2. Dee’s first four words are spot on: a truly dreadful, self indulgent production. It puts me off going again as I have been doing for 68 years, seeing great actors, fantastic productions in that time.

  3. A truly dreadful experience. I have been going to the theatre in Stratford for 30 years and I have never left a play at the interval…this time I did. Swapping genders in a Shakespeare play rarely works, and this was no exception. Awful ‘music.’ Young female actors ( however accomplished) simply do not have the gravitas to carry off roles as respected senators and it makes a mockery of the pivotal speech of ‘Brutus is an honourable man ‘ I wish I hadn’t wasted my money.

  4. Could not agree more with the negative comments. I have attended better A level drama performances. The actors tried hard and I felt sorry for them.

  5. As a comical piece it works but it was not meant to be that. The dance routines were hilarious and I could not help laughing. Brutus was weak. The costumes were dreadful. Poor Julius is rolling in his grave.

  6. I agree with all of the above. Just got back from the matinee performance and it was certainly the worst production that we have seen at the RSC. The set and costumes were basically non- existent, as was the power and majesty of Caesar. The pronouns were muddled and text changes embarrassing. The music, dance and movement were poor and irrelevant. For the first time we feel reticent about booking for other plays . I fear the post – Doran RSC.

  7. The production was a total mess. An outrageous piece of self-indulgence on the part of the director and the RSC management who allowed it, and are continuing to allow it, to be presented on stage. I resolved to leave at the end of the first half but was impressed by the young actor’s rendition of the Friends, Romans, Countrymen speech and so returned to suffer further in the second half with some toe-curlingly embarrassing scenes. The nadir was the scene before the battle between Cassius and Brutus which was so shrill and noisy with arms being flung everywhere that it reminded me more of a cat fight between two fishwives than an exposition of the pre-battle situation. Most embarrassing of all was the audience’s extremely muted applause at the end – never have I seen such an unhappy looking audience at the RSC and I would say a third of them, as I looked around me, couldn’t bring themselves to put their hands together to even pretend to clap. I felt distressed for the actors. It’s time for the RSC management to sort themselves out and understand that they are putting on plays for the benefit of paying audiences and not for them to indulge themselves in virtue signalling and pushing casting beyond the boundaries of common sense. The taxpayer is subsidising the RSC not so that those who run it can enjoy themselves and promote their own political and social views but to promote the art of theatre for the maximum enjoyment of the theatre goer.

  8. I have seen many of Shakespeare’s plays performed by the RSC, including Julius Caesar directed by Lucy Bailey with Greg Hicks as Julius. I have only praise for everything I have seen at Stratford, with rare minor reservations.

    What I saw last Thursday is one of the worst productions, out of the 200+ plays I have seen in my theatre-going life.

    The heavy breathing and protracted stomping of the opening scene was a warning that the dramatic purpose of what we were going to see would be difficult to fathom and would remain firmly locked in the director’s head.
    If the purpose was comedy, I’m pleased to report that I was already laughing.

    Then enters Cassius, the human windmill: her speech is constantly supported by gesticulations that remind one, at times, of a man desperately trying to direct traffic in Athens during the rush hour, at others of an energetic rapper. The latter description is perhaps more fitting as her lines are delivered with a regular heavy stress that falls hammer-like, as if she wants to nail the text into our heads. It’s Shakespeare, let the words do the talking, not your limbs. Funnily, in the one scene when she walks on with her hands behind her back, normality returns…

    When Casca stepped in, I was relieved. This felt like the RSC after all. So for what sin did the director punish him and order him to run round the playground endlessly (as I was once for giggling in a church service) for no other reason than that we, the dim audience, should understand why he was out of breath…

    Which brings us to running: running onto the stage is fine, running on or around the stage has to be used sparingly unless it’s for laughs. Running around as a crowd has to be justified dramatically and carefully choreographed…need I say more.

    Enter Julius Caesar, vain, ambitious, immediately commanding the room, inspiring admiration, awe, love and hate…Think again! Enter Willy Loman after a long day, having dropped the jacket and whisked off his tie: “You’re in the wrong play!” ( delivered as “You’re going the wrong way” in Planes, Trains and Automobiles). However, we suspend our disbelief and get back to Shakespeare’s play. But Julius isn’t going to be outdone if comedy is required. This is what we have all waited for with bated (or heavily exhaled) breath: the assassination and death scene.

    I suppose retractible daggers and concealed bags of pretend blood are old hat and can be easily dispensed with. In fact that would have been preferable to the director’s remarkable substitute idea: Julius is daubed to death by the Boys from the Black Stuff. He then proceeds to perform a St Vitus’ Dance of Death, which got me in tears…of laughter.

    As we all know, there is nothing worse for an actor than “corpsing”. So, Julius abandons the role to one of his old shirts (smeared with black stuff of course) and walks off.

    Life has let Julius go but he returns from the underworld as a ghost, having pinched Lucifer’s favourite crimson disco outfit from Hell’s wardrobe, to have a cringing dance with Bruta (Daaaad!!).

    The community chorus is wasted. The opportunity to use them to provide Mark Anthony with a crowd to work on has been missed and the role is taken by a (running of course, hence the track suit bottom) soothsayer, reduced to a crowd of one. A modern staging of Julius Caesar directed by Loveday Ingram at Storyhouse in Chester, only a few years back, had us all packed in the Foyer area to witness Julius arriving, Trump fashion, in a limo surrounded by bodyguards with the Community group providing vocal reaction and including us in the excitement.
    They returned with placards and shouts to punctuate Mark Anthony’s speech and give him the bouncing wall that his speech needs to have the full feeling of the man’s manipulation. This Mark Anthony had our stony silence and a demented beggar!

    There are 16 actors in this production making their RSC debut. They must have been excited by this challenge and I hope that within the inner circle of the company and the shared “vision” of the director they still experience something special. As a theatre-goer of many years and an RSC fan in particular I am deeply disappointed on their behalf for this missed opportunity to make great theatre.

    Of course, there are some very good performances but the RSC isn’t about getting it right here and there, it’s about presenting the best productions of Shakespeare’s plays to a national and international audience.

  9. I have just walked out at the interval, and I was very much not on my own. In over forty years, this is definitely the worst thing I have ever seen at the RST. RSC needs to go back to basics, or I shall be questioning whether to keep going.

  10. I was enormously relieved to read this review and some of the comments above since when we came to the end of yesterday’s horrendous experience at the RST I was astonished to see so many members of the audience doing ‘polite applause’. Had I not spent most of the matinee performance with my eyes closed, hoping that I would derive some residual pleasure from just listening to the words, I might have leapt to my feet to shout “this is utter crap!”

    Despite finding out many months after buying our tickets that Brutus and Cassius were to be played by female actors , I genuinely sat down with an open mind. That lasted all of 6 minutes (which was the time it took before we heard the opening words of the play) during which we were treated to the kind of improvised howling, writhing and heavy breathing that suggested some kind of psycho-drama therapy. From there the production lurched from one dreadful moment to another.

    On our three-hour drive home my wife and I tried to remember whether we had ever seen anything so dreadful in our 51 years of visiting the RST, taking in 300+ productions. We tend to assume that if you occasionally see poor or mediocre productions (where, unlike on this occasion, it is usually still possible to grasp the director’s intent) this is the pay off for the chance to see those of real insight or even genius. (Nowhere near as often as in the Nunn/Hands 1970s and 80s but I don’t think the RST will ever afford that size and quality of company again.)

    So many questions remained at the end: if we must have gender-neutral casting why on earth can’t female actors playing male characters use male pronouns? why can’t professional actors enunciate (I noticed CalPOONia, Cascia (?) and MetALLus Cimber)? why make a song and dance about recruiting members of the community and give them nothing meaningful to do? why replace Kensington Gore with black gunk? what is wrong with using stage weapons in a play about a bloody assassination and civil war? why dress the Soothsayer like a minor character from Shameless?

    I could go on but am beginning to feel my blood pressure rising again. I know that there are sound commercial reasons for the RSC to attract a younger audience – I am of similar age to most of those I see in their audience and I certainly won’t be around in another 50 years – but if the consequence of that is you lose those who have been loyal supporters throughout their entire adult life then someone, surely, must question whether this is sensible. We now wonder whether our approach – which has always been to book everything at the earliest opportunity and is presumably very good for the RSC bank balance – has run its course.

  11. Julius Caesar is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and I have thoroughly enjoyed previous RSC productions. However, on this occasion, I thought I had stumbled into an A Level Drama examination by mistake. The majority of the performances were underpowered and accompanied by whirling arm gestures which was incredibly distracting. The “physical” elements of the production were just embarrassing. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t focus on the text. I have seen many nontraditional productions of Shakespeare’s plays and loved them. I left this one at the interval, a first for me. Dire

  12. I attended a performance of this production on April 8th I was initially surprised by the style of it and found it quite challenging, the person sitting next to me who I didn’t know asked if I was enjoying it and I couldn’t answer it was not that straightforward, however on reflection the answer to my unknown neighbour would now be a qualified yes, most of the production worked.
    The point of the universallity of popularim of the form that leads to dictatorship was well made the play did not have to be in Rome the events could happen anywhere and at any time. The point that the play makes about unforeseen conseqences of action and inaction was also well presented. Cast was in the main very good, they perhaps neede a few more “old hands” but did well and I thought Mark Antony was exceptional
    My only gripe is costumes I think that right wing popularism expects the leadership to be well dressed and this was not really reflected in this production. Change always brings criticism and I feel that this production might well be seen as a classic given enough time. My feelings about this production was that it was challenging and interesting , in fact what theatre should be

  13. Couldn’t agree more with all the reviews. Completely inappropriate production approach for this particular Shakespeare play. Julius Caesar (the play) requires a deep sense of the political intrigue, plotting and betrayal at work with the key speeches and agonisied debates delivered with clarity and gravitas. This production gives none of that. In fact, I was so distracted by the cross-casting and extraneous physical actions that I found myself unable to listen to the text. I actually re-read the text in the ensuing weeks and constantly found myself thinking “I don’t remember that bit in the play”. The one exception was Casca – breath of fresh air and clarity in his delivery.

  14. I agree with the other comments, i’ve been going to the RSC for over 30 years and this might have been the worst production ive ever seen there. A very ‘woke’ production, there’s usually something amazing to see in an RSC production (set design, costume etc ) but not in this one. Im not expecting to see everyone in ruffs & tights but this just wasnt a great piece of theeatre. I took my daughter and seriously considered leaving in the interval which ive never done before, Julius Caesar looks like a Bingo caller, I would not recommend this performance & you can tell that Greg Doran is no longer at the helm.

  15. This production was so bad it made us envy Caesar. & like Caesar we didn’t return after the interval. This was the first time in 40 years of watching various productions that we felt the need to escape before the end. Changing lines to “For she is an honourable man” is frankly ridiculous, either change it all or don’t mess with it! Leaving the theatre I also felt it was pure self indulgence and the beleaguered audience paid for it.
    We made a 122 mile round trip to see this production and the first half made me feel like I had crawled every inch of the way.

  16. Just seen this at Newcastle. Left at interval. Should have left after the first 10 minutes. Self-indulgent and was like the kind of school play where everyone is forced to participate – so ridiculous at times that I was shaking with laughter. Only Mark Anthony speech was good but bouncing background was nausea inducing.
    I came to praise the play, but the RSC buried it.

  17. I saw this play at Newcastle last night and have to say that it is the worst production of anything I have ever seen. It felt like ‘woke bingo’, and I won a full house. Costumes by Primark, lighting by Shell forecourts, and woke politics by the BBC. Utterly terrible. There were a couple or three believable actors in the entire production but most of them didn’t seem to understand the words they spoke and parrot-fashion memorising of the script seemed to suffice. All passion and depth was for the most part sucked out of this bland and dry outing. When I found out it was RSC I assumed it would be good and professional. How wrong I was. So amateur that I was embarrassed for the entire team. Only Caesar, Mark Anthony, and Octavious had any raw talent , but this was unfortunately heavily diluted by the abysmal acting of the rest of the cast and the goddam awful direction. It was so political re. ‘Just stop oil’ that I expected them all to glue their hands to a painting in the second half. They made a wonderfull deep and complex play completely shallow and transient. Nothing stuck with me the next day except how awful it was. I mean.. REALLY awful. They even had one character deaf and communication with him was all in sign language . I kid you not. This actually happened. No daggers or props. Caesar got patted to death by people with oil on their hands. The most pathetic piece of theatre ever witnessed. Last night they murdered Shakespeare as well as Caesar.

  18. I’m afraid the other reviews are right. It is unspeakably awful. Quite the worst production of a Shakespeare play I have ever seen. Caesar, Mark Antony and Casca were decent enough. I’m afraid the others just spoke the words with no conviction and no delivery. They had apparently been told that acting meant waving your hands around all the time to express emotion to the extent when you couldn’t tell when they were signing to the deaf character or just getting emotional. The cross-gender casting didn’t work and seemed totally pointless. The chanting and writhing to no apparent purpose was little short of annoying. It’s a wonder anybody came back after the interval – some desultory applause at the end and it’s a wonder they got that.

  19. I make an annual trip to Stratford and the RSC, usually taking in two productions. It is one of the highlights of my year.
    On Wednesday 5th April, I sat through Julius Caesar in the main theatre – the Atri Banerjee production. The following night I was in the Swan to see Hamnet.
    JC was the worst production I have ever seen, not just at the RSC but in the whole of my theatre going life. The casting which gave the parts of Cassius and Brutus to women was, in my opinion, entirely misjudged. Excellent actors they might be in other roles but these parts call for a masculine brutality and sonorous, brooding presence. Much of the dialogue was lost and it was a struggle to hear Brutus most of the time. In addition, the ridiculously ‘woke’ concept of gender fluidity left Mark Anthony uttering the farcical line: ‘she is an honourable man.’ Swathes of the audience recoiled at this.
    What on earth was going on with the wolf cries, the ridiculous exhaling of breath and the silly dancing? Making Anthony howl like a wolf was a stretch too far and added nothing to the central message of the drama.
    I could go on about the numerous absurdities which abounded in this appalling production: the black blood (why??), the stupid countdown for no apparent reason, the substitution of a tea towel for JC’s body, the appalling set, the non-existent costumes (the cast looked like they had wandered in from a charity shop), the totally redundant Community Chorus which served no useful purpose, the dreadful casting (Mark Anthony’s was the only credible performance)…..
    I am a retired English teacher and I have seen some shocking interpretations of Shakespeare in my time but this one takes the biscuit. In some kind of misguided attempt to re-interpret this fine play, the RSC has reduced Shakespeare’s work to an abject absurdity. Had this been my first ever visit to the RSC, I would have been put off from coming again forever. Believe me, judging by the comments of those around me (young and old) I was not alone in my reaction.
    The RSC is risking the loss of its core audience by subscribing to gimmicks, political correctness and ‘wokery’ just for the sake of it. When I think back to superb, recent RSC productions like The Tempest, David Tennant’s Hamlet, Anthony Sher’s Henry IV, Richard II and last year’s production of the Wars of the Roses and Richard III, I could weep in frustration.
    Thank God I saw a first class, sensitively interpreted, beautifully acted dramatization of Hamnet in the Swan on the second night of my visit otherwise I might have been tempted to join Ophelia in her ‘melodious lay’ and end it all in the River Avon.

  20. I too endured this at Newcastle. The aimless running around, arm waving, political virtue signalling and wokery ruined what is (or was) one of my favorite plays. I wonder if there was a minority group that was not represented ! I felt for Mark Anthony and Casca who delivered a decent performance under very trying circumstances. The signing to the deaf character was ridiculous – I had to try very hard not to laugh. I went home and watched the Eurovision Song Contest which I enjoyed much more (that tells you how bad this RSC production really was) .

  21. We were in Nottingham Theatre Royal tonight and waited painfully for the interval to leave. We saw a few people leave early, and the Theatre was by no means full. So very very disappointed. I think all of the relevent points are covered above. If you’re a fan of Roman history, just don’t bother

  22. Last night’s production at the Theatre Royal Nottingham really was …..a tragedy.
    The menacing movements at the start seemed to set the scene … but what followed was bland and meaningless.
    There was no power, ambition or betrayal portrayed by the actors.
    Such a shame.

  23. A depressingly wasted evening! Annoyed that we made the effort to see this RSC production at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham – a play with so many memorable lines in everyday use – this production failed to shine, indeed never took off! With senseless screaming like demented banshees, pointless arm waving, ‘hyper’ emotions, lack of gravitas, confusing gender fluidity, irrelevant costumes and acting by rote, at times this felt like an amateur rehearsal, rather than from the world leading, highly respectable RSC. Don’t waste your time! The RSC would do well to withdraw this production before its reputation is damaged forever.

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