Julius Caesar was the first Shakespeare play I studied at school. I expect that was true for a number of people. It’s a superb introduction to Shakespeare because it’s very accessible, it’s got loads of everyday phrases that it’s fun to recognise, it helps you with your Latin History; and it’s got some famous characters, and a ghost, and a soothsayer, and a baying mob, and lots and lots of deaths. What more could a fifteen-year-old schoolboy want?
Much to my own irritation, I’ve had to wait all these years to see it on stage. For years it seemed like no one would touch it with an SPQR standard, and now suddenly everyone’s doing it. The RSC are staging it this summer; I’ve already got tickets to see the new version at the new Bridge Theatre in London next February, and now it’s popped up at one of my favourite theatres, the Sheffield Crucible. So I was really keen to see this new production.
I’m sure you know the story; in brief, Julius Caesar is in charge of Rome, a noble man but a bighead, who likes nothing more than to strut his stuff and let the power go to his head. Around him are several politicians whom he believes are all loyal, but insurrection is brewing. Cassius (who has a lean and hungry look) is assembling allies to do away with Caesar For The Good Of Rome and nothing whatever to do with their own personal fortune, of course. Many sign up, but the big name they want is Brutus, and Brutus is an honourable man. Nevertheless, Cassius convinces him to join the merry band of murderers and assassinate Caesar on the Ides of March (nasty). But no one has really taken into account Caesar’s pal Mark Anthony, and how he will react to the dirty deed… which is with mob-altering oratory.
In these days of political intrigue, elections, referendums, Brexit, and what have you, this play seems more relevant than ever. In the UK, with so many of the political parties now led by women and with women in some of our highest governmental positions, it seems a good idea for some of Caesar’s male associates to be played by women: Casca, Metellus Cimber, Trebonius, Popilius, as well as one of the post-Caesar triumvirate, Octavius Caesar. And, of course, Cassius, who thinks too much. These gender changes not only add an additional level of sexual intrigue (just how friendly are Cassius and Brutus?) but they also really help to modernise the story, and, coupled with Ben Stones’ modern staging, this is very much a Julius Caesar for the 21st century.
When you enter the Crucible auditorium, for a split second you think you’ve come at the wrong time and they’ve laid the stage out for the snooker championships. But no, that’s not a snooker table, but a fine old board table, suitable for grand dining, or devious conspiracy. And the knives laid out upon it are more for cutting a Consul than slicing a steak. This adds an instant inevitability to the whole thing. As soon as you see Cassius and her friends observing Caesar’s showbizzy entrance with distaste, you know his number’s up. The other knock-out design feature is how the front row of the theatre has been converted into UN-style governmental seating, with a phone, a mic, a lamp, a writing pad and a plush chair at every station. This then perfectly represents the Senate House when Caesar deigns to call and pontificate; and just as Caesar thinks he’s as constant as the northern star, he’s dead for a ducat (wrong play, sorry). The sight of all the senators dipping their hands in Caesar’s blood is gruesomely effective, because today we only think of that phrase being figurative, not literal. Other visual highlights include Mark Anthony grabbing the dead Caesar from out of his coffin and the mob tearing the meek and mild Cinna the Poet to death. Never was anyone more in the wrong place at the wrong time.
New Artistic Director of the Crucible, Robert Hastie has really set the bar high with this, his first Sheffield production. The staging is stirring and on a grand scale, using parts of the Crucible that you never knew existed, like the balcony above the stage, or the removed Row E from the seats. The splendid vision for the play deserves some excellent performances and fortunately, this is what it gets. Jonathan Hyde’s Caesar is proud and vain (but not excessively so), mature and a little world-weary; I particularly enjoyed his scene with Calpurnia when she was trying to prevent him from attending the Senate and so at first he declines the invitation to go and get murdered but when he is convinced to do so by Cinna he mockingly turns on Calpurnia for fussing so much. It was like a little snapshot into a private domestic tiff. But she was right. Mr Hyde also turns in a very chilling performance as the ghost.
The splendid Samuel West is a very thoughtful and dignified Brutus, quietly listening and weighing up all the evidence; not vacillating as I am sure the role might sometimes be played. Once he has decided to join with the conspirators he is as gung-ho about the project as anyone, but he still retains his innate honourable status. Even more gripping, Zoe Waites makes a fantastic Cassius; edgy, pushy, manipulative; with an eye for the main chance and not afraid to back track when she’s in trouble. She has a terrific stage presence and a voice that rings out in the darkest depths of the rear stalls. And Eliot Cowan is a magnificent Mark Antony, switching from lager lout in his first scenes with Caesar, through the great oratory scene where he brings the mob on his side by manipulating their emotions as the King of Rhetoric, to his triumvirate appearance where he’s more militant than Labour in the early 80s. All the other roles are played powerfully and intelligently – there’s not a weak spot anywhere. Members of the Sheffield People’s Theatre act as the mob and a fantastic job they do of it.
I really loved this production – it was everything I hoped it would be; relevant, exciting, memorable, and brought superbly up to date with its staging and casting. Congratulations to everyone involved!
Production Photos by Johan Persson