(Note from the Stage Editors) As Brutus himself says: ‘No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself, But by reflection, by some other things.” What follows are two ‘other things’. We hope to experiment further with this dual reviewer format to give more diversity of opinion on theatre at Oxford.
With carefully choreographed scenes, a cast-cum-crew crossover and a new score, Gruffdog Theatre’s production of an abridged Julius Caesar was an innovative, if slightly muddled, take on one of the most renowned plays in English literature.
Ben van Leeuwen’s score is a diverse mixture of electric guitar riffs, untuned percussion and Gregorian chanting. The guitar was especially prominent during transitions and quicker scenes, providing low, repetitive, dirge-like melodies which contributed to the sense of foreboding. However, while the cast were confident in their singing, the undeniably atmospheric chanting nevertheless posed a bit of an issue: why the Dies Irae and the Agnus Dei? Although the funereal connotations were comprehensible enough, the inextricable Christianity of the text felt jarring in what is, whatever period the production is set in, undoubtedly a play about pagans.
The visual aesthetic was clearly defined and consistent. The use of light was interesting and an effective way of focusing attention, but as the cast point beams at other members this became an issue with actors tripping up over the bulky lights left in their path. Again, a real shame, as this was very effective without the untidiness of a stumbling cast. Notably, the puppetry was very good and the movement of Caesar’s ghost was brilliantly eerie. Despite its short appearance it left a real impression. The use of the ladder (the only real piece of set) was interesting and imaginative, as well as symbolic of the scrabbling competitiveness of Roman ambition. However, scenes without it seemed lacking, as there was little focal focus on stage. This was most noticeable during Caesar’s funeral, which was completely still and surprisingly conventional. The lack of the ladder, or in fact any of the previously-employed physical movement or music, broke the tension these aspects had built. It’s natural that the focus in this scene, of all scenes, should be on the extraordinary language (although with a few strange omissions – where was ‘the unkindest cut of all’?), but having been so playful hitherto, what should have been the crux-moment of the play felt just a little anti-climactic.
Overall the cast were strong and delivered dialogue confidently with few slip ups. There was not a weak character among them and they supported each other very well and maintained their unique mannerisms – Brutus’ stony self-sacrificing, Cassius’ prickly conniving, the languid moroseness of Casca. However, some played their characters in a more grand-theatrical style while others took a more naturalistic approach, leaving some scenes and interactions imbalanced. Many of them also suffered from occasional lapses into ‘Shakespeare voice’ – an arbitrarily-paced, meticulously enunciated mode of delivery (à la Laurence Olivier), which sounds more learned than understood and risks crushing the individuality of characters and actors’ interpretations. Of the cast here only Casca was completely immune to this, and this clearly helped him win over the audience; the others, despite their generally strong performances and distinctive physical portrayals, did have a few lapses with their delivery.
As for the abridged script, it was well cut despite missing a few big lines. In particular, intercutting Calpurnia and Portia’s scenes with Brutus and Caesar respectively was a great way to draw attention to the similarities between the two women and their marital influence (as well their helplessness in a man’s word). More editing could have been used as there were some discrepancies between action directed in dialogue and what was actually carried out on stage, but it had a good balance of being concise while maintaining the grandness of the original script.
Julius Caesar had the potential for a unique and engaging show, but felt untidy in places. However, with so strong a cast and such interesting direction it remains a passionate, inventive and well-played rendition of Shakespeare.
I escaped a bitingly cold November night this week into the newly renovated Michael Pilch studio to see Gruffdog Theatre’s production of ‘Julius Caesar’ directed by Pete Sayer. A cast dressed in a rag-tag assortment of militaristic garb stood around a ladder, recalling the crucial speech of Brutus, who speaks of “young ambition’s ladder, / Whereto the climber-upward turns his face” in finally choosing duty to Rome over loyalty to Caesar. My initial reaction to this ladder was wariness – it felt too heavy handed – an unnecessarily vigorous nod towards ‘what the play’s about’, and more importantly left the actors quite constricted in the tight, thrust stage of the oddly claustrophobic Pilch studio. My fears were not immediately allayed when a contorted mass of the cast bore an intricate model sailing boat up the ladder – representing… the tempestuous atmosphere of the city? Caesar’s triumphant return? It felt out of place in a production that otherwise prioritised performance and
Once the play got into its stride, all of my prior qualms gave way in their entirety. This was primarily thanks to the absolutely stellar performances that carried me utterly into the world of the conspirators and the politics of the Eternal City. The ferociously camp-cum-perfidious Harry Lukakis gave us an apple-chomping schemer in Cassius who was an absolute pleasure to watch, chewing on what little scenery there was available in the best possible way. The ladder (which I’d feared would be a passive gimmick pointing us towards a theme) took an active role in this production, being used variously as battlement, litter, doorway, and portico – under which the conspirators sheltered from the storm portending the assassination.
Another standout performance was Calum Jacobs’ Casca, whose effortless comic timing had the audience in fits of giggles at the tension of the sumptuous vagaries of the politicking and scheming. The production was carried by Fred Wienand’s Brutus, in a particularly hubristic characterisation of a man who believes himself to be the true arbiter of justice, and is convincingly destroyed in his defeat and the death of Alethea Redfern’s superb Portia. My one criticism of Brutus’ journey was that his complete u-turn from loyal friend of Caesar to revolutionary assassin effectively happened over the course of one speech, but such issues are almost impossible to avoid when cutting Shakespeare to 100 minutes without an interval.
The most impressive part of this production was Ben Van Leeuwen’s sound design which created the feeling of the world of Rome outside of the tight square of the stage – a combination of humming, Latin chanting, air horns and dustbin drumming, usually emanating from behind the audience itself, lent a weight to the threat of the mob that whimsically switched from demagogue to demagogue. In one particular scene, the dulcet tones of Tom Fawcett’s Mark Antony swayed the crowd yet again in a manner reminiscent of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Producing the sinister paradox of the infantile alterity of the violent mob as they impressionistically fought and danced their way through the production. The biggest victim of the cuts to this play was John Lynbeck’s Caesar – who, despite his best efforts, was left without enough stage-time to build that arrogant tyrant into a more complex portrayal. Equally, the assassination of Caesar felt a little bit clumsy – particularly when Lynbeck was unable to pronounce the most infamous line of the play as “Brute” cut him off with a dagger. Overall, this was an admirable production that was unafraid of testing new waters and was (primarily) successful in walking the tightrope between innovation and gimmick.