FringeReview UK 2016
Tony Bannister directs Julius Caesar at the prestigious Lewes Little Theatre, in a starkly simple design by David Rankin (who also takes Mark Antony). Ian Edwards’ sound and Mike Batchelor’s lighting are clean and efficient on a like stage.
Tony Bannister directs Julius Caesar at the prestigious Lewes Little Theatre, in a starkly simple design consisting of a small plinth and backdrop curtains: Lewes is famed for sumptuous naturalism and this by David Rankin (who also takes Mark Antony) eschewal recalls their superb Richard III, though is even more stark, perhaps to less effect. Ian Edwards’ sound thrusts various movements of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and Russian fur ushankas leave us in little doubt as to where this is set, despite universal gestures; it’s the early 20th century too. Mike Batchelor’s lighting is clean and efficient on a like stage.
The one early prop – a screen projecting a red-poster Caesar – is briefly used and dispensed with. This lean and hungry version is manifestly all about the words.
And what words, once the business of Bill Posters is Innocent has been dealt with an those flag-strippers of Caesar’s fair name have been silenced in jail. Simon Hellyer’s Cassius barely contains his rage as he first confronts his admired Brutus, Chris Parke, whose careful musing Brutus seems more at home as don than Don, still less a military leader, and this is the point.
Parke seems too to have drawn his vocal quality from another age, modern but articulating verse with musing clarity. It recalls a Brutus directed by John Barton in a recording from 1961 – no bad thing.
This Cassius is the true quivering soldier, barely containing his rage for action and ever ready to turn in suicidal fury on himself if thwarted. Brutus the honourable intellectual drawn in almost against his will. The rationale of both men is clear and it’s a joy to listen to their exchange.
Hellyer’s Cassius is however commanding, able here to contain his extraordinary physical energy as other recent performances elsewhere (such as A Good Jew) have shown.
More particularly Hellyer can increase the pace and lope of his blank verse, and fine down sotto voce to a tryst-whisper in an aside to Brutus no conspirator else should hear. You believe in his every twitch, a man wired to self-destruct, a reined-in fury at Brutus’ overly compassionate rational fiats on butchering Mark Anthony or later in Brutus’ disastrous movement of troops at the culminating battle of Philippi. The lines:
‘Good reasons must of force give place to better. The people ‘twixt Philippi and this ground/Do stand but in a forced affection,/For they have grudged …’
were omitted, but it summarizes Brutus’ folly in not entrusting war to Cassius. Hellyer too summons the nobler part of Cassius, the one giving way to the man he most admires. It’s a revelatory performance, both for Hellyer, and for this production.
Elsewhere there’s firm power in Michael Bulman’s Caesar and much strength in even ‘I will’, never over loud but a ringing believable tyrant if not a bullish military leader. This too is the Caesar both history and Shakespeare projected though, not a burly Anthony but a man almost as lean and hungry as Cassius. Such men are dangerous he adds, and he ought to know. Bulman’s vocal intelligence and delivery hies from the same place as Parke’s, but here it’s grounded in an even more believable avatar.
This isn’t a play famed for women’s roles, and it’s good Jennifer Henley delivers a spirited cobbler at the outset as well as Portia, luckless suicidal wife of Brutus, a thankless role she delivers with dignity – and dignified panic in her confused orders to her servant. Zoe Watson strikes perhaps a stiffening too much as Calpurnia: just a little shade and less anxiety to strike it would have gifted an ideally upright Roman matron: she possesses the vocal clarity, timbre and most of the rationale otherwise. Elsewhere like Henley in ensemble work she’s enlivening, noisome, barbarous, unpredictable and rather dangerous.
Casca’s given a tenebrous presence, an older sinister but careful civilian conspirator, next to Brutus and Cassius. Alan Evison’s mystery suits him like the Man in Black: he strikes the first blow. Alan Lade as Decius Brutus shows a towering uprightness, whose loyalty to the two protagonists shines quietly but firmly in this portrayal. Hannah Wilson’s Metellus Cimber is allowed more volatility, in suing for her brother, and a winning warmth.
David Rankin’s burly Stalin-ish Mark Antony delivers with a ramp of a roar on occasion and a sterling clarity of diction. Anthony’s visceral calculation – a man of passions but a feel for the popular pulse and a determination to quicken it – is paced deliberately: this is a psychopathic pragmatist. Such a reading holds advantages on Rankin’s holding back till he lets slip the dogs of war, though his speed, like Parke’s is a little too unvarying, however it fits into the overall concept.
Peter Wellby Stephen Watson Derek Fraser and several regulars swell the many parts, in a cast of twenty. Barrie Smith’s Pindarus and Soothsayer lightly fit on a man whose first role in Julius Caesar was in 1947. Owen Daughtery’s Octavius really is young, and that’s a brattish petulant plus for this production. Wilfrid Watson, the boy playing Lucius is both spirited and vulnerable.
Overall this swiftly moving neatly snipped production holds attention and Bannister’s crowd scenes are especially effective interrupting famed speeches rather than crowd set pieces per se. There’s pacey snips of time at the end of Brutus’ and Cassius deliberations, lending zing and dispatch. There’s a twist at the end responding to the concept imposed. I’m not convinced: the level of inhabiting this concept would need more intensive work and greater detailing than Tchaikovsky 4 and a few hats – which do echo the bitingly cold evenings of this run.
Productions stand on their own merit, but two small dedications to Shakespeareans here attest to an unusual attrition. Cathryn Parker artistic director designate of the Lewes Little died suddenly and director Bannister stepped in not only to her role but this production too. The further dedication is to Maggy Williams. An internationally reputed Shakespearean her other recent tribute was at the Globe, where a Read Not Dead – whose notes she wrote 1995-2009 – was dedicated to her memory. Lewes Little Theatre is brushed with greatness on occasion. Here, the verse rationales of Parke, Bulman, Rankin are bestrid by Hellyer’s revelatory Cassius. It’s worth seeing for that alone.