Maltings Theatre, St Albans – until 26 November 2022
OVO Theatre continue their 2022 season with an updated and fast-flowing modern revisioning of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, directed by Matt Strachan
Tickets available at www.ovo.org.uk
Having either watched or read most of Shakespeare’s plays over the last twenty years, I’m beginning to think that the Bard had something against the postal service, judging from the multitude of deaths that seem to be caused by a plethora of delayed letters, lying tricksy letters, mis-delivered letters for the wrong person and letters that aren’t read in time.
It’s the latter that affects the sabotaging of the State in Julius Caesar, one of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, and arguably the strongest of the set, but you still can’t escape the feeling that a lot of murder, miscommunication and misunderstanding might have been avoided if the Elizabethans had invented tracking numbers and next day delivery.
Plot-wise – the tale is a well-known one, Julius Caesar, ruler of Rome, returns to power triumphant and seemingly popular, however under the surface a collection of his trusted senators are plotting his downfall, envious of his position and status, and it’s not long before his assassination and civil war breaks out across the city, with the conspirators fighting for their lives and cause, as time slowly runs down and they’re forced to face the inevitably brutal consequences of their regicidal machinations.
Julius Caesar is one of those Shakespeare plays, like Cymbeline, where the title character of the play isn’t really the main role – in this case the honour falls in fact to Brutus – one of the leaders of the insurrection and possibly the most reasonable and slowest to betray his king. It is through Brutus’s perspective that most of the tragedy operates as what we’re witnessing is really a tale of two halves – first the fall of one great man due to the hubris of his belief no-one will betray him, and then the secondary fall of the man that did the betraying itself. In the end, Rome is in tatters and smoking ruins, and it is presumably left to Antony to rebuild and heal the empire – even though the shadow of Cleopatra looms ominously in his future, but that is a tale told in another play, for another time.
Director Matt Strachan and his co-adaptor Micha Mirto have gone for a modernisation of the original setting, swapping the togas and laurels for the suited and scarved suaveness of a 1970s Italy. According to the director’s notes in the programme, he got suitably enthused upon discovering that the tale of Julius Caesar bore a striking resemblance to the tales of Luciano Lama and Aldo Moro – communist party leaders and trade unionists for the P.C.I., but in reality the words spoken are Shakespeare’s, and the setting doesn’t really add too much to the telling as it doesn’t really get incorporated into the piece other than a slightly ponderous added introduction to set the scene in a similar way to a cinematic title card or voice-over in a film trailer. (Read in a suitably low raspy voice, ahem, “In a world where directors are still trying to make Shakespeare relevant by adding guns, there stands one hero….” etc.
More obvious revisions to the original take the form of cutting the characters down in scale and number, amalgamating several characters into one – presumably with the purpose of beefing up the one-note original parts of the two main wives, Portia and Calphurnia, and a judicious amount of cutting to the second half of the play so that Julius Caesar now dies in the second half – again, presumably to give the actor more to do. There is also some gender swapping going on as Brutus and Cassius are now female roles, making Brutus and Portia presumably a lesbian married couple. Whilst not really an issue for me personally, you do run into some issues with the decision to gender swap whilst setting it in a defined moment of history – as you seem to have a lesbian couple of high political renown and status calling each other wife and being publicly known as a couple, whilst Italy didn’t recognise same-sex marriage until 2016. Also modernising the piece brings problems with the choices then in terms of combat. In the war, everyone’s running around with guns and pieces of wood (I know which I’d prefer) but the most famous assassination in it is done with daggers, as per the original. This has always confused me in modern productions when they use daggers in a time of guns, made worse when the actors continually bang these pistols about on the floor, revealing they are plastic toys. Similar to the “actors pretending their coffee cup isn’t empty” bugbear in television shows, this falls down into a “let’s pretend what we’re holding is really heavy and made of metal” rehearsal workshop. But perhaps I’m not meant to look too deeply, which is fine, but it’s that level of adherence and pride about finding a similar period in Italian history where a similar event occurred, but failing to fully commit to the transposition, therefore leaving the production in a state of limbo between the two. I could go on and on, they’re Italian but Brutus is welsh and Casca is from Newcastle, they continually talk about blood on their hands but the staging of the combat is hollowly bloodless, but ultimately my takeaway was that the director wanted to make an interesting play about a 1970 civil war involving 25 actors, and got given Julius Caesar with a cast of 7.
Acting wise, the show is pretty strong as a whole, Malcolm Jeffries does bring a nice sense of noble ego and humour to Julius Caesar, and the scenes that have him in really come alive in terms of scale and size – he’s very watchable and his death is a tense and tragic series of events where you hurt for him. It’s a little unfortunate that the costume designer did a quite messy job with the bottom of his suit trousers, but hey ho, perhaps Caesar didn’t have time to get a suit that fit him when he was rushing to the Senate to get stabbed. Eloise Westwood, as Portia, has a fantastic grasp on Shakespearean text, and every line she has comes across clearly and confidently – no mean feat in a Shakespeare show where the language is so archaic and complicated. She fills her expanded role with a cornucopia of pathos and passion, and it’s a joy to watch. Charlotte Whitaker is all hands-in-pockets and shrugs and smirks as Cassius – it’s an understated performance that swaggers and seethes with stylish charm, but I personally felt I never quite saw her get properly going – there is an argument later on between Brutus and Cassius that’s meant to completely destroy their friendship, and I felt Whitaker’s performance here lacked fire and a clear sense of the stakes. Jane Withers glides with grace across the stage as Calphurnia, and her resolution and anxiety to save her husband from her ominous bad dreams has beauty, humour and passion threaded through it. Alis Wyn Davies is Brutus, the main focus of the show, and she navigates the peaks and troughs of the character’s tentative beginnings, idealistic drives, and eventual hubristic downfall well – I just personally prefer my tragic heroes and heroines to really go for it when they realise all is lost and it’s all their fault – there’s a magical moment where she roars in pain like a wounded animal once she sees the turn of the battle against her, I just wanted more of that sharpness and rawness to be threaded into her text and spoken moments particular with Cassius. Matthew Rowan particularly shines in the production, bringing comedy and clarity to his role as Casca, one of the co-conspirators. Rowan has a real gift with the Shakespearean text, he humanises it and brings it alive, I hope to see future OVO shows where he can fully realise his potential as this was clearly a talented emerging performer working what he was given to the fullest capacity. Tom Milligan gives a turn as Antony, and he brings a youthful, eager and almost puppy-like vibe to the role – it’s a really difficult role as Antony comes in late to proceedings and has possibly the most famous speech in the whole thing, but Milligan doesn’t let this faze him, and leaps into the piece with both feet, winning us over by the end.
Stephanie Allison and Amy Connery handle movement and intimacy direction, and whilst there is less for them to do than in their previous work with OVO in Mosquitoes over the summer, the pair handle the ensemble action and coupled sensual moments well, giving a believability to the action and a much needed oomph to a text-heavy scene when required. I would have liked the director to incorporate the intimacy and movement more into the text however – there were a few moments where you could hear the Shakespearean part of the scene had clearly ended (I see you, cheeky rhyming couplet) and then there was a quite awkward intimacy scene tacked onto the end. Surely these things, if the director truly believes them necessary, are better worked into the text rather than serving as uncomfortable silent bookends, that only seem to shine a light on the strings and sellotape of the adaptation work. James Bailey handles the combat as the Fight Director, and the work he’s done on the show is lovely – smooth, slick and filled with appropriate groans, gasps and grunts, but again I missed the use of blood and gore. If you’re going to stab someone multiple times and leave his corpse face up in the middle of the stage then do reconsider whether stage blood might be necessary – particularly in a scene where all the murderers then go on and on about how bloody their hands are. Peter Harrison’s lighting is beautiful in its use of colour and shadow, he moves us through numerous exterior and interior locations, and his deft use of a simple rig helped clarify the scenes so we always knew where we were. It was also a pleasure to watch his slow descent into darkness and gloom as the play neared its tragic denouement. Rachael Light’s costumes are decadent and colourful, and hem-line trouser pinning aside, they all add to the show and give the characters a nice sense of individuality and style that presumably helped the actors incorporate stance and walk into their characterisation. Simon Nicholas continues his strong and delightful work with OVO, producing another captivating set – this time in traverse – some gorgeous projection lifted the show and helped conjure a sense of crowd and epic scale the diminished casting needed, and any show that has a running water fountain gets an instant ten points from me, bladder-seducing though it may be for some. I’ll even forgive him the use of black gaffer tape for making cracks in the floor and walls, having a working fridge during a previous show in the season has granted him some benefit of the doubt. Michael Bird makes some excellent choices as Sound Designer, filing the show with topical music selections, an insistent low drone that ratchets through the action leading to Caesar’s murder, and some jump-scare style gun shots where needed – but one does perhaps need to look at the placing of these, as there was far more musical support in the second half than the first, which left the intimacy moments a little untethered and hollow, and the show as a whole slightly unbalanced. Perhaps there were sound issues the night I saw, as it does seem an odd choice to have so much in the second half and hardly any in the first.
This may seem like a difficult review, but in truth there is a lot to recommend the show – its commitment to trying something new with an old text, and its bold ambition with the staging and characterisations. The performances are strong and you can clearly tell the actors care about pushing the show as far as they can – at least I presume they do as there are many moments where they drip hot wax on their own arms, and I can’t imagine they let the director persuade them to do that without caring about the piece first. Having seen four productions from this season, it is very clear that Artistic Director Adam Nichols and his OVO team are dedicated to producing modern and unabashedly powerful pieces of theatre for our world today, and they are a huge asset to the theatrical establishment in Hertfordshire, indeed St Albans should consider herself lucky to have them on her own doorstep – however when making these kind of decisions when adapting such a iconic and oft-performed classic, it may have been more important to focus a little longer in the planning phase, and make sure that every change, cut and re-invention was fully integrated into the text, so that every single alteration had purpose and clarity, and added something, rather than competed for attention. Ultimately, in Shakespeare, everything must serve the text, as the text is all we have, and in a moment where the language used in these pieces is becoming ever more indecipherable as time moves on into an age where comprehension and attention spans are ever dwindling – no matter how tidy the idea is, or how clever the parallels are – as another prince in another play once said: “the play’s the thing.”