Photo by Ilona Frey on Unsplash

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is a challenging play to bring to life, demanding emotive and nuanced performances as well as a mastery of action sequences to capture the drama of Roman political intrigue and betrayal. Unfortunately this production rarely rose to the challenge, presenting a cacophony of different interpretations haphazardly combined, leading to a largely confusing and dissatisfying whole.

Any Shakespearean tragedy that opens with a football singalong and the crowd reluctantly goaded into chanting “Pompey is a wasteman” will certainly capture attention. From this provocative and creative start however, there was little pay-off. The play attempted to embrace novel elements of audience participation to tease out the themes of theatricality and performance, but were often abrupt and even startling, with the actors yelling over each other from within the audience. The choice to keep the house lights up throughout the performance was presumably intended to bring the attendees into part of the plebeian ‘mob’ swayed by opposing Brutus’ and Mark Antonys’ factions. Unfortunately it often had the opposite effect, leaving the audience restless and exposed, with a notable number leaving at the interval.

“This anarchic disjuncture was also reflected in the play’s aesthetics”

Some characters such as Decius (Omar Bynon) were played with an almost shrill pantomime, while others such as Portia (Cash Holland) and Caesar (Dickon Tyrrell) were blunted by a grandiose, traditional Shakespearean effect. In tone the play was restless and uneven; in one scene hyperbolic speeches spilled into melodrama, while in the next scene we may be greeted with dosey-do dancing. Disparate elements included the dispersal of communist-style pamphlets to the audience followed by a ukulele musical number.

This anarchic disjuncture was also reflected in the play’s aesthetics. One the one hand, the simple but dramatic set pieces remain constant throughout the play, grounding the more turbulent action sequences and evoking the tainted grandeur of Roman luxury. However, the costuming of the play was distractingly chaotic. The play began with smart white suits, advancing the themes of political intrigue and corporate espionage: an interesting and possibly effective approach, if it had been committed to. Later, characters donned Roman shawls and togas, while others dressed in historic military uniforms, or even in casual modern homeware that could have come straight off the rack at H&M. Later on, the styles switched again, this time into WWII style military outfits, wielding handguns and plastic rifles where daggers were the weapon of choice just a scene before.

“Instead of catharsis, we were given confusion and exhaustion”

The technical skill and emotional nuance of the actors was also highly disparate, making some scenes captivating and engaging, and other tiresome and even awkward. Partly this may be due to circumstances out of the productions control; the intended first night of performances was cancelled at short notice, and when the play opened a day late, the character of Mark Antony was played by an understudy who completed the performance with script in hand.

Undoubtedly this was a challenging task, and where the understudy was more confident with his lines, his performance was convincing and precise, illustrating some great potential. Having such a central character reading off a script which he rarely looked up from did irrevocably damage the power of his performance and the effectiveness of the drama as a whole, particularly in Act II where his character was more central, and delivery most hesitant. Despite this, it would be reminiscent not to praise those actors who carried the wit and weight of Shakespeare’s dialogue brilliantly. Jack Myers in particular brought both Caska and Octavious to life, utterly convincing in both roles, and uplifting every scene he was in.

The limited cast meant that almost all actors played multiple characters, but in the warring factions towards the end of the play there was no visible discernment between them, leading to even further confusion amongst an already weary audience. Moreover, the choice to distinguish characters through suddenly switching accents was genuinely bewildering, with some characters donning exaggerated and almost caricaturish Yorkshire accents and others Caribbean– with no clear indication as to why – generating awkward laughter in what were presumably intended to be sincere dramatic moments. These decisions undermined any sense of tension or dramatic anticipation that the play had been building towards at its conclusion. Instead of catharsis, we were given confusion and exhaustion.


Mountain View

An interview with Ross Smith

This haphazard approach was unfortunately symptomatic of the entire theatrical experience; elements of the play which could have been original or brilliant were lost. There were some inventive additions, powerful performances and interesting stylisations, and in particular the choice to gender-swap some lead characters such as Brutus (Anna Crichlow) and Cassius (Charlotte Bate) was successful in lending originality and nuance to this central relationship. However these elements were poorly developed, losing sight of the essential dramatic tensions between Cassius’ betrayal and Brutus’ conflicted loyalties which are at the heart of this densely written tragedy. Ultimately, while there was talent amongst the cast and creativity amongst the producers, this production failed to centralise and animate the character conflicts which Shakespeare painstakingly detailed, losing itself to a frivolous cacophony of style over the gravity of its substance.

Julius Caesar is playing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from the 29th to 31st of July, 7.30pm