This Julius Caesar has to be the second worst-dressed Shakespearean production I’ve ever seen. Director David Farr, who found acclaim at Stratford for his Japanese Coriolanus two years ago, starring the excellent Greg Hicks, has swapped ancient Rome for a nondescript modernity, a move which has resulted not in a new urgency, relevance or conceptual clarity, but an enervating drabness.
An early scene featuring the assembled conspirators clad in casual leather jackets and slacks resembles chucking-out time at a Stoke-on-Trent nightclub. The noble Portia sports beachwear while Mark Antony is clad in jogging gear. Ye Gods. No wonder Julius Caesar, natty in a dark two-piece suit, is kingpin.
The programme, with an interesting essay by left-wing political commentator Martin Jacques and pictorial references to Berlusconi and Putin, promises a deeper exploration of the themes of the play and their modern parallels than is here delivered. Farr, who apart from the aforementioned Coriolanus here, has also given incisive interpretations of The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream at Bristol Old Vic, simply does not make the case on stage.
Understandably, given the show’s origins as a touring production, designer Ti Green’s set is minimal - black girders - through which we espy the technical crew creating the sound and light effects. We also get actors training lights and hand-held cameras on colleagues, throwing images of the person speaking onto a backdrop.
Of the cast, Christopher Saul finds a suavely brutal authority as Caesar, although this is undermined by a lapse into ranting. We’re clearly not meant to take Mark Antony's panegyric to his friend at face value. Gary Oliver’s Mark Antony, Grant Mitchell-like in a leather jacket with shaved head, is also a brute and a cynic; after his reading of Caesar's will he tears it up. Unfortunately, Oliver also lapses into shouting at times.
Zubin Varla (pictured), excellent in Two Gentlemen, strives a little too hard for noble authority as Brutus. Best is Adrian Schiller, who gives an embittered and waspish Cassius.
This is a deliberately brutal and cynical Julius Caesar, with no heroes. The production closes with the image of the new tyrant. It's a valid reading but, coupled with the drab set and costumes, makes for a dispiriting evening.
- Pete Wood