Julius Caesar

William Shakespeare
Lazarus Theatre Company
Blue Elephant Theatre
(2009)

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A classical symmetry has been imposed on the Blue Elephant Theatre. The large square acting space, black and bleak, is separated from the audience by a huge image of Julius Caesar, a carved stone face gazing sternly and imperiously over us, his subjects. Painted on a gauze which travels back and forth, sweeping over the action, this image dominates the play. It is this stage property which glides forward to haunt Brutus. Apart from a crumpled unidentifiable figure in the senate, dead from the multiple stab wounds of the assassins, it is this image which represents Julius Caesar in the play.

Paring down Shakespeare’s original to a mere ninety minutes involves removing the title role from the piece. What is left is a political and emotional struggle between Brutus, Cassius and Mark Anthony in which none appear victors; all serve the history of the Roman state.

Ricky Dukes has directed and designed a very interesting and innovative theatrical experience. A cast of fourteen actors truly fulfil the Lazarus Theatre Company’s pledge to promote ensemble performance. Actors are required to sing and move in harmony, occasionally waiting in full view to the side of the action, or making perilously slow-motioned changes into new costumes. Effective and slick, the offstage action mimics the onstage performances. Roman bath-house and dangerous, violent night-time streets, senate steps or bloody battlefield, all become stylized scenes of betrayal and mistrust.

Some performances do, however, shine. Robin Holden is an impassioned Mark Anthony, his skilful manipulation of the masses matched by his obvious love of Julius Caesar. Christopher Eastwood is a particularly petulant Octavius, and Matthew Wade’s Brutus is literally and metaphorically haunted by his actions. These characters aside, the strongest performances come from the women characters. Sophie Ash and Elana Martin as Calphurnia and Portia bring an emotional depth and intensity to their characters which is perfectly in tune with the production.

In tune. An apt expression considering the Lloyd Webberish additions to the narrative. Ash’s voice is as haunting as the ghost of her murdered husband. How far this musical element adds to the overall effect is questionable. It certainly complements the interesting staging which occasionally veers on the side of balletic. Most effective when representing the advancing force of the rebellious Roman armies, the physicalized dramatic moments add to the visual focus if occasionally detracting from the spoken word.

Less convincing appear the almost ubiquitous homoerotic sex-scenes, complete with naked Mark Anthony mounting an inanely giggling slave boy. There surely is a less clichéd means of suggesting his ‘love’ for Julius Caesar was more than the history books, or Shakespeare, might allow?

Overall, a very interesting and valid production, reduced to the essence of the narrative and presented in a slick and sensitive way. Totally impossible for the director or company to correct, but the theatrical experience is marred by excruciatingly uncomfortable Blue Elephant Theatre seating. Ninety minutes would have been so much easier to enjoy. Address that potentially minor problem (one which, with some financial support for theatrical well-wishers, the Blue Elephant team could easily rectify), and the production would be free to shine as an innovative and exciting ensemble event.

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby