Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Dormandy
Cast: Julian Glover (Julius Caesar), Lynn Farleigh (Calpurnia), John Hartoch (Soothsayer), Afolabi Alli (Metellus), Freddie Bowerman (Brutus), Edward Stone (Cassius), Rosie Gray (Decia), Eleanor House (Casca), Chris Jenks (Pindarus/Popilius), Alice Kerrigan (Lucia/Cinna the Poet/Cobbler), Sarah Livingstone (Portia), Rosy McEwen (Octavia/Artemidora), Rudolphe Mdlongwa (Cinna/Lepidus), Ross O’Donnellan (Mark Antony), Harley Viveash (Trebonius)
Dame Judi Dench sparked off quite a debate recently about Young Actors. The gist of her complaints seemed to be (allowing for customary distortion by the press) that these whippersnappers tend to have no interest in the history of the profession, are frequently inaudible, and lack the necessary training to articulate ‘the classics’ (including The Shakespeare, obvs) as they ought to be articulated.
There’s certainly some of it about, but that seems to have been the case for as long as there’s been A Profession to speak of. As each generation of actors and directors reaches the age when civilians might be thinking about retiring, they mourn in public the death of that theatrical perfection in which their own careers have been so instrumental. That, of course, is a right they’ve earned but the truth isn’t quite as straightforward as many care to admit.
There have always been actors who couldn’t give a rat’s about theatrical history and heritage. Their priorities are the current production or performance and the money they’ll earn from it. The kind of actor who rarely, if ever, goes to the theatre as part of an audience. It doesn’t lessen their abilities or talents – some people just take that approach to their work life, whatever their chosen profession.
I’ve been going to the theatre since I was ten and have encountered actors whose dialogue is difficult or impossible to hear with surprising regularity. Sometimes this seems to be a venue-related problem. What it definitely isn’t is youth-related. Within the past decade in one of the finest productions of King Lear I’ve ever seen, an excellent actor in her forties was so unintelligible that her Goneril might have been exhaling clouds of gnats instead of speaking for all I could hear of her. She was, and is, a highly respected actor and rightly so. The problem hasn’t been there in other productions in which I’ve seen her. Not even when she was in her twenties.
I mention all of this now because I’m hoping that, like the magnificent Charles Kay, Dame Judi made it to The Old Vic in Bristol to see the latest in this year’s glut of Julius Caesars. She’d have been thrilled. Apart from Julian Glover, Lynn Farleigh and John Hartoch everyone in the cast is a student at the Old Vic Theatre School; all late teens or early twenties. I can’t comment on whether or not they are interested in the traditions and history of the stage but every one of them is beautifully audible and every one of them can deliver Shakespeare’s words like a dream.
It doesn’t, in truth, get off to the most promising start. There’s an awkward, forced feel to the crowds of modern day teenagers who run through the auditorium waving flags and banners, cheering the return of Caesar. They’re putting on the show right here! The first thing to lift it is when they begin to chant ‘Oh… Julius Caesar!’ to the tune of Seven Nation Army, and Caesar is immediately given the same status in their eyes as a football superstar or, more to the point, Jeremy Corbyn.
The youth of Rome want Julius to be king, even though kings have long been outlawed. There are unavoidable, tangible comparisons with the widespread wish for Corbyn to take over as Prime Minister somehow in the wake of the General Election held the day before this production opened. This is serendipity in action.
Caesar himself is twinkly, elderly and statesmanlike. He dresses a bit like Trump (if Trump had a sense of style) but is happy to look his true age. When a blind soothsayer calls out to him during his homecoming walkabout, Caesar seems keen to listen. Perhaps it’s because this gaunt figure in a war veteran’s beret is the first person of his own generation that he’s seen in ages. It’s a peerless performance by Julian Glover who can shift from well-practised geniality to steel-eyed menace in a blink.
In Lynne Farleigh’s watchful, cautious and ultimately terrified Calpurnia he has his perfect consort; their relationship comes across as effortlessly solid and believable. The same is true of Portia with Brutus: Sarah Livingstone is very strong indeed and has an added dimension here courtesy of the interpretation of Lucius as Lucia, an attendant clearly in love with her master. Livingstone initially pays no attention (Lucia is merely a servant after all) but this gradually changes. I can’t recall a Lucius even half as besotted with Brutus as the splendid Alice Kerrigan makes her Lucia. It works brilliantly – her tearful lullaby to him is unbearably sad. Brutus himself is a nuanced and thoughtful performance by Freddie Bowerman, who takes him from nervous public schoolboy through Prince William-style shy heartthrob, to reluctant warrior of the officer class.
Played out against set designer Sarah Mercadé’s smart financial district of steel-grey marble and frosted windows, there are impressive performances everywhere, from Afolabi Alli’s Metellus to Harley Viveash’s memorable Trebonius. Edward Stone plays Cassius with a monstrous air of Bullingdon deviousness and naked self-interest, in contrast to Eleanor Houses’s smart, P.A. take on Casca. Both characters are driven by ambition but his is a lot more personal where hers is professionally political.
Mark Antony’s ambitions and motivations seem more fluid in a production which initially casts him as a kind of celebrity whom Caesar has taken up to boost his cool rating. It feels like a sly echo of the way the tabloids rushed to present Corbyn’s meeting with Stormzy. With his West Coast Irish accent he first appears as a boyish and engaging boxer in one of Caesar’s photo opportunities. But then Caesar is assassinated, the walls become daubed with graffiti, the windows smashed… and suddenly the smiling young boxer has a cause to fight for, a murder to avenge. He and his followers dress like some fascist people’s front in black shirts and berets (Brutus’s lot are in fatigues) and Antony, like Brutus, has found his inner leader. It’s an outstanding performance by Ross O’Donnellan, never more so than when he’s almost born again out of grief and anger following Caesar’s death.
O’Donnellan is matched in every sense by Rosy McEwen as Caesar’s daughter Octavia, whose hard-faced glamour only serves to accentuate the dangerous vehemence of her performance. All of the roles traditionally assigned to men benefit greatly from being played by women, in fact. From Rosy Gray’s Decia to Casca and the wired, cheeky cobbler they are fresh and as far from ‘gimmickry’ as can be. The attack on Cinna the Poet, for example, is very well staged and doubly, differently frightening because it’s a woman being set upon by a bunch of angry, fanatical men. The extra layer of menace is unmistakable. This becomes a civil war with genuinely dangerous, Lord of the Flies air of young, angry people running wild.
Portia, like Caesar, returns as a pallid ghost. The spirit of Caesar first shows himself at Cassius’s death, as torn and bloodstained as at the moment of his murder. By the time Brutus is killed, Caesar is back to being fully dressed and blood-free as though restored by the removal of those who plotted against him. The last image we have as the lights go down is of his noble, spectral face floating in the dark, as proud and still as a marble bust.
It’s a haunting end to a lively and memorable production which offers welcome proof to those who need it that, where British theatre is concerned, the kids are definitely alright.