Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Robert Hastie
Reviewer: Janet Jepson
Even for those who were unaware of the fate that befalls Julius Caesar, this production of Shakespeare’s well-known political drama was from the outset not going to be a jolly little jaunt. As the guy in the dark suit stood in front of the large polished table and opened a sombre black case to reveal seven pristine knives, a collective shudder ran through the audience. It wasn’t going to be pleasant.
The Sheffield Theatres company under the direction of Robert Hastie, a passionate devotee of Shakespeare’s work, has perfectly captured the manicured calculation and sheer determination behind the overthrow of the popular Roman general, Caesar. As the people of the city are celebrating Caesar’s military victories, two of his senators, Cassius and Brutus are expressing fears that he could become a tyrannical ruler if he is allowed to take power. In conjunction with a select group of associates, they plan his assassination in the Senate. The plot is successful, despite warnings from a soothsayer to avoid “the Ides of March” and Caesar’s wife Calpurina suffering dreams with disastrous premonitions. Caesar’s great friend Mark Anthony speaks at the funeral, however, and manages to discredit the conspirators, turning all the citizens to thoughts of rebellion. A civil war breaks out, and Antony is victorious alongside Caesar’s niece Octavius. As in all good Shakespearian stories the defeated baddies, Brutus and Cassius, fall on their own blades and the victor rules.
This production is wonderfully presented. The setting is somewhat akin to a glimpse inside the American Congress. Caesar could be the president, with all the rest as senators and officials. The suits are sharp; there are light-coloured overcoats for the walkabouts; pencil skirts and heels for the ladies (many of Shakespeare’s male characters have been substituted by female actors, for example, Cassius, Octavius, Trebonius); and everyone carries a smart black lockable case. In the Senate, there are delegate desks with microphones and name plates. ‘President’ Caesar has a red tie and matching socks, thus picking him out as a leader – tellingly Anthony wears a pink tie, a faded red, probably portent to what he will become.
The scenes of destruction during the civil war could come from any modern war/conflict zone. The combat gear and automatic rifles, alongside clever lighting effects backed by realistic sounds (designed by Johanna Town and Emma Laxton respectively), make it all seem very close to the audience’s current fears and nightmares about what is happening in the world today. Shakespeare is never dated, his work can always be compared to something happening now, and his story of Julius Caesar could just as well apply to the story of Jesus as told in the Bible, or Donald Trump taking the presidency of the US. One of the enduring images of the play has to be that of the bloodied corpse of Caesar being uncovered and raised up in his coffin, does this not make his enemies realise what they have done?
There are some amazing performances from the actors. Shakespearian language does not fall easily from 21st Century tongues, but no one in the audience would realise that the characters are speaking anything other than our usual English, such are the normal intonations and gestures. Elliot Cowan is a powerful, but seemingly gentle Mark Anthony; Zoe Waites plays a very determined and driven Cassius; Jonathan Hyde has an aura of easy superiority as Caesar; Lily Nichol in white puffer jacket and tight jeans is a teenage mum turned soothsayer; and Samuel West (the only actor whose words are sometimes a little too quiet to catch) very convincingly and emotionally fights his doubts about being part of the plot against his friend. Other members of the cast are too numerous to mention individually, but all are excellent. However separate credit has to go to the members of Sheffield People’s Theatre, who make up all the extras and townsfolk. They are a very varied mix, as such crowds should be, and they do a great job, very professional.
Go along and experience a true Shakespeare, and revel in the up to date modernity of it. Sheffield, London, the US, Russia, the Middle East? It’s all the same, always has been. Individuals seek power, others are jealous of it, dissent collects support, and you have a recurring story. It was all brought a little too close to home on the night of the review – an aura of collective sadness, horror and anger prevailed about the atrocity the evening before at Manchester Arena. A minute’s silence in honour of the victims was held before the play began, led by the head of Sheffield Theatres, and every person standing there affirmed the vow that such events will not prevent us from doing what we enjoy – experiencing amazing live performances at theatres and other artistic venues.
Runs until Saturday 10 June 2017 | Image: Johan Persson