Set in modern-day America, the hotly-anticipated performance of Caesar at the Keble O’Reilly is shaping up to be an innovative and exciting new interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most political plays. After watching a run-through of the first half in rehearsal, the prospect of returning to see the final performance is extremely exciting. With gender-neutral casting, and the unusual decision to utilise a traverse stage, this is an extremely accessible and inventive production which anyone in Oxford would do well to catch this week.
Performing Shakespeare on a traverse stage – one with the audience seated on opposite sides of a long strip – is an unusual move, and one which I haven’t seen since Kenneth Branagh’s production of Macbeth in 2013. Ben Ashton, Caesar’s director, explains that having the audience surround the action makes the speeches seem more public – a sense of political display is a central theme of the play, and the traverse stage enhances this. Ashton also argues that this staging harks back to the Roman amphitheatres of Caesar’s time. While the thrust stages of Shakespeare’s England might also make a useful comparison, it is refreshing to escape the distancing effect of the proscenium arch that characterises so many student productions.
Gender-blind auditions have resulted in a sterling cast where ability to embody a character has been prioritised over traditional casting. Perhaps the most interesting result of this is the altered dynamic in the scene where Caesar is warned not to go to the Capitol. In other productions, this often appears to make Caesar seem somewhat sexist as he casually dismisses his wife Calpurnia’s nightmares. In Caesar, however, the genders of these two characters are switched, arguably decreasing the power differential between the two, and resulting in a far greater sense of desperation as Calpurnius begs his wife not to travel to the capitol – this is extremely successful, lending the scene a whole new interpretation that moves away from the simple husband/wife dynamic towards an appreciation of the wider situation. It is also interesting to see a female Caesar in a production set in modern-day America. While the production admirably avoids direct parallels to Hillary Clinton, it is nevertheless intriguing to see such a topical exploration of what it means to be a woman in politics.
Beyond a very minimalist set, atmosphere is created via red and blue gels – while this binary lighting scheme could perhaps be a severely limiting factor, Caesar has embraced the simplicity of this set-up. It focusses on the connotations of pensiveness and passion that are evoked by blue and red light respectively, and utilising them to complement rather than distract from the language. In addition to this, the cast’s grasp of the text is superb, and I left the rehearsal with the feeling that they really were living Shakespeare’s words. Ashton explained that given how much of the play is about not just what is said, but what is left unsaid – Caesar’s ambition is entirely reported by other characters, for example, as she never explicitly mentions it – this production utilises very simple blocking which allows the audience’s attention to remain predominantly with the language. Rehearsals have focused on when and where to break from strict iambic pentameter, and from what I have seen of the production this has been a very worthwhile exercise. Tom Ames (Mark Anthony), for example, delivers “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” with such emotion and sincerity that the crowd scenes thereafter became all the more believable and immediate. There was a sense that Caesar’s audience will feel themselves swept along with Anthony’s rhetoric in a way that Shakespeare evidently intended but few productions manage to achieve.
The cast employs an impressive geographical range of American accents, which is perhaps both a blessing and a curse for the production. Given that the characters in Julius Caesar are some of Shakespeare’s most three-dimensional, with a variety of motives and personality clashes driving the action, Ashton argues that the audience’s automatic assumptions about character based on accent will be challenged as the play continues. He hopes that Caesar will lead the audience to reconsider their original feelings towards each character and hence leave them with a deeper connection to the play as a whole. This is certainly an admirable experiment and one which I am intrigued to see play out in the theatre.
The whole cast is confident and assured in their delivery, though as they move from rehearsal to stage it is very possible that some will emerge as the stars of the show. At this early stage Jonny Wiles (Brutus) and Amelia Gabriel (Cassius) are extremely compelling and seem likely to make a strong impression on the audience.
Caesar runs from 11th-14th October at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre. Tickets available here: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/cosmicarts