Review by Raphael Kohn
The Royal Shakespeare Company really is having quite a time right now – with its immensely popular My Neighbour ToToRo receiving the warmest of responses in London last winter and their reopening production of Hamnet at the refurbished Swan theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon being completely sold-out (don’t worry, it’s coming to the Garrick theatre in September). Back at their flagship Royal Shakespeare Theatre, however, drama is brimming in Shakespeare’s political thriller, Julius Caesar.
With one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches (‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen…’), Julius Caesar features surprisingly little of its eponymous character, instead exploring his conspirators’ motivations and interactions in the build-up to Caesar’s murder. Act two then follows the aftermath, in which factionalism brings Rome into a civil war.
As a production company, the RSC is no stranger to breaking new ground and pushing the limits, yet Julius Caesar may be the boldest statement yet by the company. Directed by Atri Banerjee in his RSC debut, this production eschews any semblance of classical Shakespearean stylings, instead exploring new ground in a highly conceptual and boldly abstract production. The set, by Rosanna Vize, is a minimalist, blank stage, with the only real piece of staging being a large cube that rotates to reveal multiple different setpieces. Angular, frenzied movement (by Jennifer Jackson) that at times is evocative of Hofesh Shechter, adds much to be admired to this production.
This concept extends to every aspect of the show: be it the highly choreographed, balletic fight scenes (choreographed by Rachel Brown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown) and the jarringly distorted live music by Jasmin Kent Rodgman. Performers douse themselves in black, tarry oil instead of blood, smearing it all over their mostly blank costumes. It’s a daring statement – certainly one that might divide opinion – but it worked brilliantly for me.
Some choices are even bolder, like a ‘pause’ that takes place immediately following one of the most dramatic moments of the play. A timer for 2 minutes is projected onto the cube at the back of the stage, while the actors sit, shocked and processing the events that have just happened. The trauma the audience has collectively experienced is amplified, and I truly felt shocked, as if these events had happened to me personally.
The main character of Julius Caesar, for those who are less familiar with the play, is not the eponymous character. Instead, it is Brutus, the conspirator who is declared by her eventual enemy Antony as ‘the noblest Roman of them all’ who participates in the murder not out of jealousy of Caesar, but because Brutus believes it to be right. Brutus is performed brilliantly by Thalissa Teixeira, in a gender-defying turn that may turn the heads of the more conservative of viewers. Surrounding her is an ensemble of all-around talent, with Nigel Barrett’s Julius and Kelly Gough’s Cassius making excellent co-leads.
Annabel Baldwin brings real intrigue into the part of the Soothsayer, inching around the stage, often just observing, but it is the moments where they come to the fore and become an imposing force of nature that truly stand out. A mention must go to Jamal Ajala, who plays the part of Lucius entirely in BSL, interacting with other characters who communicate back to him in the same language. While this is done without captioning, their fluidity of communication allows them to be completely understandable.
I dare say this will be a production that divides opinion, but that is the risk that a director must take when making such a daring, abstract production. While occasionally, some moments may risk losing some of the audience, there is a lot of strength in this production, with the performers’ talent shining through a bold new creation. I’m not sure that this Julius Caesar will be for absolutely everyone – but those who go in with an open mind and dare to let themselves be immersed in Banerjee’s chaos will find it greatly rewarding.
Julius Caesar plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 8th April, then touring. Tickets available from: https://www.rsc.org.uk/julius-caesar/
Photos by Marc Brenner