The Guildford Shakespeare Company
Holy Trinity Church, Guildford High Street
From 07 February 2017 to 25 February 2017
Review by Sheila Connor
Always original, always inventive, always exciting—and constantly producing exceptional shows—the Guildford Shakespeare Company has now decided that now it is time to see what they can do with Julius Caesar.
The timing is perfect, the political machinations of Caesar’s time are much the same as the volatile global situation today—and not necessarily without the knives. The production is in modern dress, but the text is always Shakespeare’s.
The first idea of the company was that with so many women in positions of power today it made sense to give women equal status, the outcome being that many of the conspirators are now female. It did take a little time to come to terms with a female Brutus, but this is Johanne Murdoch proving that she is not only equal to the role but totally excels in it with some very memorable and emotional speeches. Her Brutus is indeed "an honourable man" who checks his conscience at every turn and carefully considers his actions before committing himself. You can feel the conflict within her as she reasons things out to herself.
The performers, in character, talk to the audience beforehand preparing us for the arrival of Caesar, the conquering hero and, pointing out the television cameras, they encourage us to shout, cheer and wave banners when the great man arrives. It’s all very much the razzmatazz of the American campaign trail with music blaring, TV cameras whirring and excitement mounting, (did I hear a helicopter?).
Eventually, accompanied by his glamorous wife Calpurnia (Jessica Guise) Caesar arrives on stage showing a wide and very false beaming smile to the crowd but at the same time, from the corner of his mouth, he is warning Mark Antony to beware of Cassius (Chris Porter in "lean and hungry", avaricious mode).
His fears are justified as what follows is the most famous stabbing in history which is superbly executed (in all senses) and, although expected, comes as a bit of a shock being so brutally realistic with Caesar staggering in pain before collapsing with a pained “Et tu Brute?”
The crowd are shocked too and want retribution but Brutus’s speech convincing them that he has saved them from a would-be tyrant has them eating out of his hand—big mistake letting Mark Antony speak next.
In Jack Wharrier’s hands, the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech becomes a clever and emotional masterclass on how to manipulate a crowd. Every nuance, every inflection and every expression are carefully judged and emotionally delivered with the words “honourable men” becoming gradually almost lost in the rhetoric. Beautiful!
The two opposing parties now have to fight it out and we come to the battle, and what a joy this is! To a throbbing and insistent beat the armies advance, engage in skirmishes, lose men, retreat and advance again, the whole turning into a dance of war, intricate and superb.
I looked for the choreographer in the programme but, not finding one I assumed that this is the work of Fight Director Philip D’Orleans who covered the stabbing. Not so - it seems that Gemma Fairlie, as well as directing and adapting this terrific production. also created the war choreography - genius!
The two founder members of the company, also exceptional performers, have several smaller parts to play here. Matt Pinches as Marullus works himself into a frenzy of frustrated indignation as he berates the crowd (us) for our idleness and fickle nature cheering for Caesar when a short while ago we were welcoming Pompey, and Sarah Gobran as the Soothsayer warns of the "Ides of March". I did wonder what that bag lady was doing in the audience.
I make no excuses for raving about this production. It is, in my opinion, exceptionally brilliant and one I shall remember for a very long time.