Julius Caesar Review: “striking but inconsistent”

By Ben Clark 

The key to successfully adapting a Shakespeare play for a modern audience is finding an angle that fits the play and sticking to it. Julius Caesar is a play about democracy, about power and about how far one should go for one’s beliefs. Director Max Lindon has chosen to adapt Julius Caesar for the ‘post-truth age’, a decision which taps into many of the play’s central themes. Yet where his production falls down is through a lack of consistency on the vision it promised. This wasn’t post-truth Julius Caesar: this was just Julius Caesar in suits.

Having said that, there was still plenty to commend in this production. The set was striking: the back wall was plastered with posters featuring Caesar’s face, over which was graffitied phrases like ‘Land for all’ and ‘Victory for Rome’; and there was a giant red laurel wreath painted on top of the posters, in the middle of which stood Caesar during the climactic moment of his death, creating a powerful image. 

The production also made good use of the apron at the front of the stage, especially in the quarrel scene between Brutus and Cassius, where it became a makeshift army barracks.

What prevented scenes such as these from really hitting the mark—despite clever staging—was a mismatch in acting styles. Partly this is a symptom of the production’s well-intentioned yet ultimately misguided attempt to ‘invite the audience to draw their own parallels between the play and current affairs’ without being ‘directly allegorical’.  Despite being a talented actor, Owen Sparkes was not quite right for the part of Brutus, and as a result the balance shifted towards Theo Holt-Bailey’s Cassius. 

Another hinderance was the audible contrast between different actors’ inflections: some were clearly affecting Roman gravitas, whereas others sounded merely posh, and still others sounded as though they were just speaking normally. It was a pity because some, such as Dan Hodgkinson’s Antony and Zac Tiplady’s Caesar, had mastered a Roman-sounding accent. Both Hodgkinson and Tiplady had a few stand-out scenes: Hodgkinson as Antony grieving over Caesar produced an emotional display; Tiplady as Caesar was notable for the deliberately ridiculous scene where, standing in his pyjamas, he professed himself a ‘lion’, saying: ‘danger knows full well / That Caesar is more dangerous than he’. Of course, with Caesar’s death imminent, the audience knows full well that Caesar’s opinion of himself is somewhat overblown. 

There were good moments, but these failed to converge into the fast-paced, suspenseful play that Julius Caesarcan be. One thing that might have helped to sustain momentum is a more liberal use of music. Having opened with Kanye West’s ‘Power’—quite an apt choice, I thought—I was expecting similarly upbeat music throughout, but instead there were only a few more songs, neither of which were recognisable or particularly fitting. Perhaps the lack of music was part of the director’s subtle approach, but in that case Lindon needed to find other ways to keep the momentum up throughout. 

A tendency to underact from some of the cast might also have had a hand in the slower pace. The scene where Brutus found out about the death of his wife, Portia, was a good example of this. As an actor, one can go either of two ways: stoicism, or grief. Owen Sparkes didn’t quite manage to channel either of these. Yet another example of a compromise in this performance which didn’t quite pay off.

By attempting to steer clear of the two opposite poles of a dull, traditional performance and an overly ambitious one, it ended up falling between two stools. It’s unfortunate because it was an interesting take and a talented cast. I’m sure they’ll move on to much greater things. 

Photograph:  Julia Tosia Ryng

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