June 1, 2017, by Peter Kirwan
Julius Caesar (Sheffield Theatres) @ The Crucible
Julius Caesar is having a moment. The RSC are doing it in togas in Stratford; the Donmar’s celebrated all-female production is coming to cinemas in the summer; and Nicholas Hytner is making it his first Shakespeare at the new Bridge Theatre in the new year. It’s also Robert Hastie’s choice for an inaugural production, this time of his tenure as Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres, and Hastie was keen to hammer home the play’s now-ness.
As a mission statement for Sheffield Theatres under Hastie’s reign, the production sent out all the right messages. An exactly 50/50 gender split among the named cast; a large community chorus, Sheffield People’s Theatre, swelling the crowd scenes with some twenty-three additional bodies; women and ethnic minorities in lead roles; actors with visible disabilities among the professional and amateur troupes. But most importantly, with almost forty people onstage at times, the divisions between the professional and amateur companies were almost impossible to see. This was a genuine community production, the crowd scenes given as much time and attention in their blocking and dynamics as the more intimate scenes, and the production was, as a result, one of the most genuinely rowdy and threatening Caesars I’ve seen in some time.
The modern setting, combining elements of neo-fascism with the smooth panelling of a modern Parliament room, wasn’t original, but it was beautifully realised in Ben Stones’s set and Johanna Town’s brilliantly utilised lighting design. The play opened to an enormous polished table, with seven gleaming knives laid out atop it. The first row of audience seating had been appropriated as delegate seating, each place with a sheaf of papers and a personalised microphone, casting everything on the main stage as part of an ongoing political debate staged in the public eye. A huge emblematic laurel wreath hung above the stage, the symbol of a strong and stable society, and a symbol that was cast down at the end of the play’s first half.
The production was thus interested in the interplay of public presentations of politicians in the modern age and the behind-the-scenes machinations that drove them; and in this it shared much ground with Roman Tragedies or Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus. Caesar (Jonathan Hyde) was first seen surrounded by secret service officers passing by an overjoyed crowd, shaking hands and waving while escorting Lisa Caruccio Came’s Calpurnia; but when the Soothsayer (Lily Nichol) emerged from the crowd, a young woman in dirtied clothes carrying a baby, he gave her only a moment of his time before having his suited men frogmarch her away.
The conflict between the personal and the public was clearest during the murder scene. The chorus filled the delegate seats, along with Brutus and Cassius, who used their microphones to ask for recognition and admittance to the stage, where they knelt before Caesar, who sat on a large chair in front of a table of aides and secretaries. In the galleries above the stage, more chorus members in plain clothes watched proceedings. When the conspirators pounced, the murder was bloody, brutal, and above all public; the drama of the moment lay as much in the frozen, shocked reactions of the watching delegates, who screamed and fled in chaos as the body hit the ground.
This shocked reaction drove the subsequent events. In a series of visual references that were perhaps a little too on-the-nose, rioters were seen running about the stage with boxes of trainers and other goodies under their arms. Paul Tinto’s Cinna the Poet was set upon by a gang of twenty-one rioters. Where the first scene of the production had cast the people of Rome as drunken students wearing togas and carrying traffic cones, now they were in hoodies and baying for blood, laughing as they carried the Poet offstage to close the first half on a terrifying note. It was chaos that could only be remedied by martial law; at the start of the second half, the bodies of Metellus, Ligarius and Casca hung suspended from the ceiling over the overturned senate chamber, and the triumvirate (including Chipo Chung’s paramilitary Octavius) sprawled around the table of power while a sentry with machine gun stood guard.
Against this political climate of swings between publicity politics, anarchy and military dictatorships, a superb cast brought the human element. Samuel West played Brutus as a thoughtful and sometimes weak man, his quietness too often his downfall, most obviously in the orations scene. He stood atop a high balcony, far removed from the crowds at stage level, and struggled to be heard over the noise while reading uncertainly from cue cards. Elliot Cowan’s Antony, by contrast, was wearing a tracksuit at the Lupercal races and introduced himself by vaulting over a crowd barrier. During the orations he was already at stage level, and manipulated the crowd masterfully and charismatically, coming among the audience and addressing everyone without sacrificing emotion and tone. Cowan’s control of his voice led to some fascinating readings throughout, including the decision to suddenly drop to a hush on the second word of ‘Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war’. This Antony was passionate but always in control, as seen when he calmly executed Pindarus with an unexpected shot to the head from behind during the civil war.
Brutus’s relationship with Zoë Waites’s Cassius dominated the first half. The contrast between the private and public scenes was well done, although it did lead to the private scenes seeming too under-played at times; the intimacy of Cassius and Brutus’s conversations risking excluding the audience entirely. Waites was a wonderfully complex figure, driven by resentment for a Caesar who publicly blanked her. Her calm confidence masked a passion for rule that was rooted in her hopes for Brutus, and for perhaps the first time I felt I truly understood the dynamics of their quarrel scene, as Cassius became furious and upset in the face of Brutus’s fixity, then broke down completely as she learned of Portia’s death. Cassius’s instability and Brutus’s inflexibility complemented one another well when driving towards decisive action, but in the long game of war, the two seemed driven apart.
The rest of the cast were excellent, and the sensible decision to conflate many of the middle-rank characters paid dividends in some more sustained character arcs – most notably, Lepidus (Robert Goodale) took the lines introducing Antony to the conspirators that belong to an anonymous servant, leaving this character quaking and quailing before the murderers long before the forming of the triumvirate which, even from an early stage, saw him being sidelined; and Lucius (an excellent, affecting Arthur Hughes) grew from a somewhat clumsy servant to a sleepy aide-de-camp, and finally took the role of Strato in holding the knife for Brutus to thrust himself onto, a moment that ended the production on a near-embrace. Moments such as these capitalised on the human relationships intelligently, and hinted at a larger world for these characters that was more explicitly acknowledged in the final image of Antony contemplating a knife. It’s a cracking start to Hastie’s time at Sheffield, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.