Shakespeare plays have a habit of arriving like proverbial buses. Following the RSC’s very meh staging of Julius Caesar, Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Roman Tragedies at the Barbican and the Public Theater’s Trump-tinted version, the Bristol Old Vic adds its humble offering to the mix. I was literally midway through writing this paragraph when I noticed Dominic Cavendish had called it “The Play of the Moment” in an article published this very morning. Which I guess means I now need to come up with something else to say. Maybe something about Gossip Girl and football? That sounds like a sensible alternative.
As with the theatre’s subtle and melancholic production of King Lear in 2016, the cast are a mix of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School final year students and three professional actors – in this case, Julian Glover as Julius Caesar, Lynn Farleigh as Calpurnia and John Hartoch as Soothsayer. The intention is to display the acting talents of the students, and there’s certainly a fair amount on display. Michelle Fox and Jessica Temple from last year’s Lear recently formed part of the superb ensemble in George Mann’s feminist rock-opera Medea (trust me, it worked) at the BOV. It’s easy to imagine we will also be seeing more from members of the 2017 cohort.
It has been argued that Julius Caesar is fact Brutus’s play given how much the plot focuses on the latter character. With director Simon Dormandy’s production, it’s tempting to skip onto another stepping-stone and call it Cassius’s play. That’s not to say that Freddie Bowerman’s Sandhurst-honed Brutus does anything wrong; he’s particularly adept at portraying that certain caged-in version of masculinity that will not (maybe cannot) crack even in the event of wives dying and pretty much everything he ever planned rapidly disintegrating. It’s more that Edward Stone inserts into Cassius a sickly slick vein of scheming and manipulation (hurry along now and cast him as Iago). His narcissistic posing contains echoes of Ed Westwick as Chuck Bass in Gossip Girl – if you just swap an Upper East Side brunch for a trashed warzone and cocktails for automated weaponry.
It is, however, easy to concentrate on the young performers onstage and forget that Julius Caesar is not just largely performed but also created by students. One of the strongest aspects of the production is Sarah Mercadé’s modern Rome set design. Two giant corporate blocks provide an ants-eye-view of a faceless contemporary cityscape – imagine, say, the entrance to Spitalfields Market near the RBS building. It then morphs into a modernist senate house using the familiar architecture of today’s politics epitomised by the inside of the UN’s premises in Geneva. By the end of the play, only the concrete dividers of the blocks remain. It didn’t take much to strip them of their clean, office-like exteriors in the same way that it doesn’t take much for civilised societies to resort back to killing one another.
This isn’t the most emotionally engaging version of Julius Caesar to watch, but it is a lot of fun. This is particularly true of the scenes involving the city’s crowds. Kitted out in retro sportswear and dragging floppy Italian flags around with them, #TeamCaesar look like they came to see their hero after the final whistle blew at the San Siro. Their chanting and homemade posters could be as easily designed for Gianluigi Buffon’s retirement party as the brief appearance of a politician. Like football fans, the masses are terminally capricious. Hail Mourinho! But Mourinho was ambitious… Hail Conte! The JD Sports-shopping hoards are, at moments, brilliantly silly. A trailing shriek of ‘mutiny, muinteeeeeeeeeee!’ from one of the marauders still has me giggling. This approach to how the wider populace are shown does risk being patronising – what do they know? They’ll vote for anything – yet it’s done with enough joy to make it seem like an innocent enough choice.
In his review of the Public Theatre’s Julius Caesar for Exeunt, Gabe Cohn argues that the borrowed Trump imagery sits somewhat uncomfortably on top of Shakespeare’s plot. That’s a shame because Shakespeare’s original text makes more than enough points of its own without the need to labour them. In the Bristol Old Vic’s production, the focus is directed at the changing attitudes of outside observers rather than on the machinations of the inner circle. Making excellent use of the Bristol Old Vic’s space, the crowds are dispersed throughout the auditorium. When they start clapping in unison, I almost instinctively do too. I realise and halt just before I make a tit out of myself – but I guess what Dormandy’s decision cleverly shows is just how easy following the crowd can be, whether that’s screaming insults at Cristiano Ronaldo or getting swept up in waves of populist rhetoric.
Julius Caesar is on at the Bristol Old Vic until 1st July 2017. Click here for more details.