Brighton Year-Round 2022
When you get rid of a corrupt, overbearing leader – be careful what you wish for …
‘Julius Caesar’ was first staged for an audience in 1601 – but as we watched One Fell Swoop’s alfresco production in St Nicholas Rest Garden, those four and a bit centuries melted away and it felt like we were watching a production about current events.
Director Joanna Rosenfeld chose this play to open their 2022 season as she feels that its themes speak powerfully to the dilemmas we find ourselves in at the moment.
An overbearing, hugely corrupt leader has been removed, and the two principal conspirators are engaged in a contest to replace him. From an earlier position as colleagues, they now accuse each other of incompetence and dishonesty. Government Ministers enrich themselves and their friends by siphoning off vast sums of public money intended for Covid-19 protection. Meanwhile, the general population is easily swayed and seduced by persuasive promises peddled by the popular press.
That’s the UK today – In Shakespeare’s Rome, Julius Caesar is manoeuvring to usurp the principles of the Republic and have himself crowned as a King. But as Brutus says: “the abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power”. And Cassius understands that Caesar wouldn’t be a wolf if he couldn’t see that the Roman citizens are sheep. Plus ça change …
The Rest Garden is adjacent to St Nicholas Church, and its walls are edged with gravestones and the fronts of burial vaults. Some tombs run down the centre, partly shaded by trees, and the production took place under the shade of a leafy canopy. All fourteen of the cast were dressed in vaguely military garb – leather coats and trousers or khaki tunics, along with heavy boots – not so much Sandhurst as Mad Max. They had heavily marked faces too: bands of black across the eyes or striped designs on the cheeks. A number also sported motorcycling goggles. Not people you’d want to meet on a dark night …
Joanna Rosenfeld has trimmed about a fifth of Shakespeare’s lines, which makes this production faster than usual, and to my mind a lot clearer. With only fourteen actors they have to double (or triple) up some of the parts. Because Brutus is such a central character he was played by two actors: Kirsty Geddes in the first half, and Deborah Kearne after the interval. This worked very well – Geddes forceful as she gave vent to Brutus’s disapproval of Caesar’s kingly aspirations, and then a more reflective Kearne as the man after the assassination, when their plans unravel and the tensions surface between him and Cassius as the republic slides into civil war. Jules Craig gave us a loud and angry Cassius, and there was real tension between her and Kearne in the second half, when Cassius is accused by Brutus of having ‘itchy palms’, signifying his lust for gold.
Women playing men – but women played women too. Both Brutus and Caesar have wives, Portia and Calpurnia (acted by Sammie Bailey and Alex Louise respectively), and they are both sidelined by their husbands. Brutus hides his plotting from Portia, while Caesar initially responds to his wife’s dream of blood by deciding to stay at home on the next day, the Ides of March, only to have his mind changed by the flatteries of Decius. Both actors gave us a passionate sense of the anguish of being ignored by their partner.
Caesar himself was played by Ross Gurney-Randall, a powerfully built man with a beard and wearing a top hat. Powerful voice, too. His facial markings included a red slash over one eye – a premonition of his bloody fate? For the start of the killing scene in The Senate, he sat atop a tall stone tomb while the petitioners jostled below him. The staging gave a vivid impression of classical Roman surroundings just by the deft use of what was available at the venue. Less is more …
When he was eventually stabbed to death, the conspirators all dipped their hands in his blood. As they arose from around the corpse, the actors trailed long red ribbons from their hands – a visually stunning device, first used by One Fell Swoop when they produced ‘The Scottish Play’ in St Ann’s Wells Garden several years ago. One of the features of the Company’s productions is the minimalism of their props and costumes; treating the audience as grown-ups who can imagine the scene for themselves, and letting the actors get on with telling the story.
I talked above about the abuse of power, and of course corrupt leaders like Boris Johnson couldn’t hold their position without powerful supporters. Caesar had Mark Anthony, the man who three times offered Caesar the crown and would have done so again but for the killing. Mark Anthony’s funeral oration, where he turns the crowd against the conspirators, is well-known, but Sharon Drain’s performance of the lines was unforgettable. She didn’t just make a speech, she worked her audience like a fairground snake-oil salesman – heaping praise on the assassins (“all honourable men”) while recalling all of Caesar’s virtues. Raising their expectations (“Remember the Will!”) until they were putty in her hands. The actors playing the crowd were equally good – jostling excitedly amongst themselves and then turning towards the audience to admonish us – “Quiet!”.
A brilliant piece of theatre – it was impossible not to think of the role played by the right-wing Press in persuading the British public to support the Government’s agenda and demonising immigrants and workers.
I haven’t mentioned every actor for reasons of space, but be assured that there were uniformly engaging performances from the whole cast. Not just the speaking roles in any particular scene, but the supporting crowd of citizens, soldiers or whatever, all carrying on believable lives away from the main focus. I haven’t talked about Julian McDowell as Decius, Ben Baeza as Octavius, Katey Ann Fraser as Casca, or Rosanna Bini, Rachel Mullen, Lexi Pickett or Natasha Kafka; actors who’ve played major roles in other One Fell Swoop productions.
One Fell Swoop are staging two more Shakespeare plays in this 2022 season. The basic premise is that the actors aren’t given the play’s title until the Thursday evening before the weekend’s performance, so they have only a few days to work up their parts and rehearse. They carry copies of the script on stage, so they don’t have to learn the lines, but of course all the interactions, blocking and the meaning and delivery of the words has to be honed in a very short time.
The end result is little short of miraculous. If you have a chance to see them this year – don’t miss it !