Review – Julius Caesar, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 27th May 2017

Julius CaesarJulius 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?

CassiusMuch 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.

Caesar and CalpurniaI’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.

BrutusIn 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.

Mark AntonyWhen 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.

LigariusNew 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.

Brutus and PortiaThe 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 Casca and CinnaPeople’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

Review – Hobson’s Choice, Crucible, Sheffield, 4th June 2011

Hobson's ChoiceI last saw this play about thirty years ago, and I confess I don’t remember very much about the production. I was in two minds about booking this time as I assumed my lack of memory about the first show meant that it’s probably not a very good play. But I was wrong. Given the fact that in four years’ time Harold Brighouse’s “Hobson’s Choice” will be receiving its telegram from the Queen, it’s still a remarkably relevant and pertinent play. Set in 1880, Henry Horatio Hobson is a respectable but bullying widower, parent to three daughters all of whom work in his boot and shoe emporium. Eldest daughter Maggie is full of ambition and she chooses the timid but skilful Willie Mossop to be her husband and business partner. The rest of the play follows the rising and falling fortunes of the wider family. And it’s a really entertaining and thought-provoking show.

The flexible space of the Crucible works well to suggest the austere comfort of the middle class shop with its basement workshop, and the six younger main characters sat snugly around the table for Maggie and Willie’s wedding breakfast suggest a desire for upward mobility whilst still being relatively poor. Lighting effects provide all the necessary external scenery and the attention to detail in the set and in the costumes, comfortably evocative of Salford in 1880, are rewarding to take in. I also loved the fact that it was properly blocked! Such basic skills seem to be going out of fashion, but Christopher Luscombe’s direction is smart, clear and allows the text to do the work.

Barrie RutterHobson is played by Barrie Rutter, whom I haven’t seen since he was in the National Theatre’s Guys and Dolls back in 1982. I had read some criticism about the way he reads this role, with the suggestion of too much pantomime bluster and not enough “getting to the heart of the character”. Well there’s no doubt that he plays it for all the laughs – but then again, it’s a funny script, so why not? Personally I thought he got the character spot on. It’s a technically perfect performance, showing great comic timing, and a splendidly physical presence, in which the character’s changing fortunes are well reflected. When his arrogant swagger of the first act is replaced by a worn, tired, sick shuffle towards the end of the play it speaks volumes.

Zoe WaitesThere is also a very powerful performance from Zoe Waites as Maggie. Firm and fair throughout, you slowly see her get what she wants in order to benefit not only herself and her husband but her sisters too. It’s a fascinating character – the ambitious woman, thought by her father to be too old to marry off; having to fight hard for what she believes is right; but always playing fair. When the lawyer Prosser (brightly portrayed by Harry Waller) tries to ask for £1000 as settlement on the trumped-up case they all created to trick Hobson, she is dismayed at the greed and insists that £500 is the maximum that is fair. And when Hobson is sick and needs someone to look after him, despite all the ambition, it is Maggie who stands by him. So although Maggie is the prime mover against the status quo, it is she who retains the moral high ground throughout the play. Zoe Waites is every inch this strong moral woman and completely commands the stage.

Harry Waller There are some wonderfully funny moments. When Hobson arrives at the newlywed Mossops’ basement, all the wedding guests are sent to the bedroom to hide, and Mossop slinks off with them. A simple movement but the impact was hilarious. Also when Prosser tries formally to reply to Mossop’s thank-you speech, the puncturing of his pomposity is beautifully delivered by Cassie Atkinson’s Alice in a sharp one-word retort. Just little moments – but they work a treat.

Philip McGinley The other really strong performance is by Philip McGinley as Mossop. His discomfort at the attention of Miss Maggie in the early part of the play is a delight and he plays the weakly timid character to great effect in the scene with his current “tokened” girlfriend Ada. As his character progresses he grows physically with it, so that when he stands up to his father in law he really is finally a man; and it makes his wife’s face positively burn with pride and attraction. “The younger rises when the old doth fall” says Edmund in King Lear, and it’s true for the contrary fortunes of Mossop and Hobson, in a play which has many nodding acquaintances with Lear.

All in all a most satisfying production, which made me very glad I parted with my £15 for a top price matinee seat. It’s a steal. It’s on at the Crucible until 25th June. There’s no excuse not to go!