JULIUS CAESAR

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _RSC STRATFORD-UPON-AVON.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _8th APR.

March 28, 2023

images © Marc Brenner @ RSC.

There are likely all manner of frightfully topical nuggets one could pepper around discussions of a Julius Caesar that finds itself landing in our troubled political landscape. Boris Johnson standing trial for his questionable oration in Parliament closing out a truly tumultuous twelve months for the UK body politic, whilst Stateside, the terms ‘impeachment’ and ‘conviction’ never stray far from the conversation when discussing a certain other former World leader.

Heck, we even had showboating Culture Secretary dingbat, Nadine Dorries, using the very imagery of Caesar’s senatorial assassination when attempting to discredit now-PM Rishi Sunak, during last year’s doomed leadership election.

Cast a wider glance, and the international scene remains depressingly replete with examples of destabilisation and conflict incited by the forced and even supposedly altruistic removals of despots.

In such charged political times, there’s unavoidable pathos and resonance here, in a piece that asks questions of motivation, betrayal and the greater good within the coordinated takedown of a perceived tyrant.

There’s simply no getting around the sheer degree of resonance it offers in 2023.

With all this said, there’s a striking and immediate minimalism to Atri Banerjee’s bold interpretation of the Bard’s politic thriller, and one which echoes right through to its admirably restrained performances and stark, foreboding staging. There’s a definite sense that this is, first and foremost, about the people, not the politics. It’s moody, for sure: harsh casts of light offer this Caesar’s conspirators little avenue or space to hide, whilst projected silhouettes of eclipses and ominous countdowns loom over proceedings. A bleak, monochromatic bluntness cuts through the visuals, perhaps most strikingly in how its ‘most noble blood of all’ is cast here in deep, staining smears of inky, black oil.

Et tu, Atri? – Listed amongst The Stage’s ‘one to watch’ list in 2022, Julius Caesar marks the debut of award-winning director Atri Banerjee (pictured above, © The Other Richard for The Stage) at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Banerjee has form for theatrical re-invention, with his revival of ‘The Glass Menagerie‘  last year (postponed from its original 2020 opening thanks to a certain pandemic) labelled ‘astonishing’ and ‘powerfully heart-wrenching’ by critics.

But this patently isn’t about elaborate sets, or even set pieces; it’s about the human dynamics at Caesar’s core. The visual language is striking, angular, contemporary. It’s a piece that – on aesthetics alone – would not look amiss staged in, say, the National. Lee Curran and Rosanna Vize in particular help to craft out a stark, distinctive courtyard for its machinations and misdeeds to play out in.

And yet, despite all this, and the lofty, embedded themes of betrayal, fate, rhetoric and beyond, there’s a marked restraint to the performances that find themselves housed in this revised Caesar. For a play not short of grandstanding moments of address to the crowds, inciting rhetoric and more, it’s rather in the quieter, raw moments that the production really shines.

“For a play not short of grandstanding moments of address to the crowds, inciting rhetoric and more, it’s rather in the quieter, raw moments that the production really shines.”

Much of this orbits around an absorbing central turn from Thalissa Teixeira, as the conflicted Brutus – moral figurehead (smokescreen?) of the cabal of Roman conspirators seeking to topple the man they perceive to be dictator. It’s a gorgeously-observed performance; searching, tremulous and rarely too assured. Teixeira lends the character the quiet dignity and sense of respect needed, and yet so too is there something else bubbling just beneath the surface; a twitchy, physical trepidation that could perhaps stem from the poignantly-observed dynamic shared with Jamal Ajala’s Lucius, a relationship which offers amongst the production’s most powerfully original moments.

Et tu, Atri? – Listed amongst The Stage’s ‘one to watch’ list in 2022, Julius Caesar marks the debut of award-winning director Atri Banerjee (pictured above, © The Other Richard for The Stage) at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Banerjee has form for theatrical re-invention, with his revival of ‘The Glass Menagerie‘  last year (postponed from its original 2020 opening thanks to a certain pandemic) labelled ‘astonishing’ and ‘powerfully heart-wrenching’ by critics.

Kelly Gough is similarly excellent, delivering a bitingly cold, intense and neurotic Cassius, whilst Gina Isaac laces her influential Decius with just the right degree of cunning and performative fawning at the Caesarian ego. William Robinson lends some volume and bombast to an otherwise slightly hushed production with his ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’, and is well-met here by Annabel Baldwin’s soothsayer-cum-crowdsfolk. Ella Dacres and Nadi Kemp-Sayfi both offer great work with limited stage time, whilst the Stratford wing of ‘Community Chorus‘ ensure the sporadic incidence of vocal accompaniment is haunting and rousing in equal measure.

“…a gorgeously-observed performance; searching, tremulous and rarely too assured.”

It doesn’t all work, though. Whilst much of the on-stage physicality is suitably evocative – all grand gasps of air and almost balletic tussles – helped immeasurably throughout by Claire Windsor’s throbbing, pulsing sound design (listen as the bass of Caesar’s returning triumph plays out here akin to a distant rave), there are moments where the more heightened, choreographed beats tiptoe perilously close to undercutting the tension. And, on a similar note, the gravity of the show’s early plotting and conspiring can feel a little lacking or undercooked in places. This is murder and assassination being bandied around, after all.

Finally, Nigel Barrett’s Caesar himself, whilst showcasing hints of a disingenuous, discomforting edge, generally struggles to register as even a proposed megalomaniac.

Sadly, there will likely be a small band of merry ‘not my Shakespeare’, dyed-in-the-wool purists who will balk at some of the show’s handling of gender, and indeed gender relations, too. You only need to dip a toe into the cess pit of Twitter reactions to Teixeira’s casting to further depress one’s self. And let’s not bother going anywhere near the historical and cultural hypocrisy of taking umbrage with gender portrayal within Shakespeare, either; instead, we’ll simply take it as a given that all such regressive irrelevances are to be considered – and disregarded – as nothing more than just that.

“Our ensemble – made up of both the professional company and our community chorus members – is drawn from across the country and beyond… The company members’ own several identities, and the negotiation of all these in relation to everyone else’s, have fed into the show in ways that have been quite magical.”

Banerjee, in Julius Caesar’s programme, appraising the collaborative, collective richness of this distinctive, idiosyncratic production.

The promising young director’s vision may not be executed here faultlessly – at a base level, there’s probably even a fair argument to be made that it’s actually in places all a bit too quiet, for starters – but there’s clearly no lack of ambition, artistry or original thinking at play, either. And for sure, whilst Caesar offers sobering warnings on the danger of ambition run wild, at the same time, so too does it posit this within a sobering reflection on the dangers of persuasive talk and rhetoric, also.

So, in true, reflective ‘Caesar’ style, on balance perhaps you ought not listen to anything proffered by either this particular reviewer, nor any of his peers. Be your own senator, hand yourself over to this fascinating, original adaptation, and see whether Banerjee’s blunt, subtle blade carves itself a dish fit for the gods, or instead renders the most unkindest cut of all.

Personally? Not that I loved this Caesar less, but that I loved at least what it aimed for, more.

Imperfect but admirably original dramaturgy from Banerjee. Teixeira and Gough lead a troupe of absorbing conspirators whose work is loudest in its (admittedly nigh-silent) quieter ebbs. Compelling, distinctive Shakespeare.

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