Julius Caesar, Bristol Old Vic
Julius Caesar was at the height of his powers when he was assassinated – a powerful, charismatic general, astute tactician, a chancer and a bully. A demagogue who made enemies on his way to the top. In this production Julian Glover is a tired looking, overweight Caesar who would have blended into the benches of the House of Lords where he could have a snooze.
Simon Dormandy’s production of Shakespeare’s tragedy set in modern dress had a similar unevenness to the previous production of King Lear in which a core of established actors were surrounded by the students of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (BOVTS). A blend that worked with John Hartoch’s Soothsayer and Lyn Farleigh’s excellent Calpurnia but misfired with Glover. As he looked across at the moody looking Cassius played by Edward Stone, Glover’s delivery of Caesar’s line: “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,” could have been a commentary on the contrasts in performance. The BOVTS cast were vibrant, energetic and up for it, while miscast Glover seemed to be in a different play.
Full of sound and fury, the director relied on the cliché of machine gun wielding battle dressed soldiers appearing between the battle scenes signalled by explosions, dry ice and flashing lights. Having said that once Glover had been dispatched the cast came into their own. Ross O’Donnellan’s Irish tinted Mark Anthony gave a creditable speech at Caesar’s funeral while the other members of the Triumvers, Rosy McEwen as Octavia and Rudolphe Mdlongwa as Lepidus gave strong support and should have bright futures – as did Freddie Bowerman’s portrayal of the complex Brutus tormented by his loyalty to Rome’s Republic and his admiration of Caesar as he justified his part in the assassination: “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.”
And it was the large cast of new blood from the BOVTS that brought this production to life. Alice Kerrigan doubled up as Lucia and the unfortunate poet Cinna who is mistakenly killed by the mob, Afolabi Alli impressed as Metellus as did Eleanor House as Casca. Rosie Gray as Decia enjoyed her role while Chris Jenks muscled in and doubled up in support – and Harley Viveash as Trebonius added depth. Sarah Livingstone was an Ivana Trump-esque Portia continuing Dormandy’s modern day theme while John Hartoch’s aged Royal British Legion style soothsayer was bang on.
In his notes Dormandy draws parallels with the rise of Trump, Le Pen and Putin as populist leaders in our own age with that of the Roman Republic’s nemesis in Julius Caesar. There is much merit in the theme and the production adopts the visuals and tones of our time but a demagogue needs charisma and to instill fear in those around him – something that didn’t happen here.
Reviewed on Wednesday, 14 June, 2017. The play continues to 1st July 2017
Bristol Old Vic: http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School: www.oldvic.ac.uk