The Cannon’s Mouth company have made a bold choice for the launch of a brand new theatrical venue in south London. Julius Caesar is an unlikely choice for a pared-down production: there’s probably no other Shakespeare where crowd scenes play such a major part. Here, director Ben Naylor does a sterling job of covering the deficiencies in numbers, and the piece crackles with a raw energy that warms up a rather chilly space.
Naylor does make some strange decisions, however. The programme notes draw parallels with Middle East politics, in particular Saddam Hussein. But the two situations couldn’t be more different. After the fall of the Iraqi dictator, the emerging power vacuum led to more bloodshed. But that doesn’t happen in Julius Caesar, where the triumvirate quickly take control. While it’s true there are some violent repercussions, they’re part and parcel of the repressive state.
In fact, these programme notes are superfluous, reading as if the company decided to force such parallels after casting the play, in the hopes of making it more ‘relevant’ to a modern audience. The faux middle-eastern music seems like an unwieldy addition as well, especially as the evening begins with what sounds like a fascist anthem, suggesting Mussolini’s Italy.
Nor do we really get to understand the motivation of the conspirators (a rather scaled-down faction: no Trebonius, no Decius Brutus, no Metellus Cimber). And Edmund Kingsley is just not charismatic enough as Caesar to suggest a tyrant in waiting.
The other problem with this young cast is that their verse-speaking is a bit all over the place. What’s more, it’s taken at a breakneck pace. In particular, Nick Barber’s Cassius seems to be engaged in a furious race, his pattern of speech sounding like an out-of-control chariot rattling over Roman cobbles. James Tovell’s Brutus is rather too restrained – it’s hard to imagine how he gets his way over Cassius. And Richard Simon’s Mark Antony doesn’t wholly convince, though he wakes with the set-piece speeches at Caesar’s funeral.
On the other hand, I was taken with Alex Blake’s psychotic thug Casca, whose every speech was laden with menace – here’s a conspirator you can believe in.
For all its faults (and the inevitable identity confusion when actors play many parts), this is an interesting production of Julius Caesar and one that’ll be worth catching when it really gets into its stride. And Cannon’s Mouth is certainly a company to watch out for, and the Menier Chocolate Factory another south of the river venue to be welcomed.