Edinburgh Fringe 2019
Tension, duplicity and dubiety abound in this genuinely innovative take on a Shakespeare classic.
Julius Caesar was the set text for my English ‘O’ level. I never really understood it. That was over forty-five years ago now. I’m not sure that I’ve got to grips with it in the intervening period either.
This brilliantly conceived and staged version, however, has gone a long way towards enlightening me. Set in the present day, the script has been stripped to its bare bones and subtly alludes to the narcissism, hypocrisy and short termism endemic in 21st century politics. The original play has a cast of thousands, but this version seemed to me to be far more effective with just four main characters – the eponymous JC, Mark Anthony, Cassius and Brutus – cleverly augmented by a four person Greek chorus, who also delivered several minor “sign-posting” roles.
Fast-paced, frenetic drumming gets us underway with a powerfully delivered four-part a cappella harmony on the theme of Dylan’s “For The Times They Are A-Changin”, setting the scene for the plotting to begin in earnest. OK, so they want to get rid of an all-powerful body that is constricting their lives but once you’ve done the murdering, what do you do then? Nature abhors a vacuum.
If this sounds horribly familiar, that’s all part of SquareEye Theatre’s cunning plan in this fast, loud and very tense piece of theatre that somehow remains true to the plot whilst convincing us that this is a play about current events. Acting is right out of the top drawer, real gravitas, passion, intensity, emotion and feelings laid bare. Live drumming heightens the tension and there is some quite wonderful and symbolic choreography from our Greek chorus that adds meaning to both soliloquies and duologues.
Hats off to whoever cast this as well. Caesar (Jack Petheram) was eerily steely, Machiavellian, oily and horribly self-centred but the genius was in cross-casting Cassius, Brutus and Mark Anthony. Sophie Stephens (Cassius) has an impressive stage presence, using her physicality to augment the powerful lines given the character by the Bard. Lucy Painter (Brutus) was similarly strong, particularly as she and Stephens plotted the downfall of Caesar himself. Pace and tight cueing created real frisson.
But the stand-out from this universally excellent troupe has to be Francesca Hayman as Mark Anthony. Her delivery of that character’s classic post-murder speech was one that will live long in the memory for its intensity, conviction and, above all, use of silence. You can sometimes sense when an actor has drifted “into the zone” and Hayman was certainly somewhere else during this part of her excellent performance.
SquareEye Theatre’s cast and crew are drawn from students at Birmingham University and their PR blurb describes this as “an experimental new look at Shakespeare’s classic play”. Well, this experiment is a complete success – perfect editing, strong acting and all the political tension you can handle. It’s yet another example of quality Fringe theatre in an out-of-the-way venue. Highly recommended viewing for anyone, whether you are a Shakespeare buff or not.