Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol
One of the achievements of this production of Julius Caesar is to make what can often seem a broken-backed play engage over the course of a full two-and-a-half hours. It is the finest thing I've seen by the company in some time.
A few years ago, Deborah Warner directed a thrilling staging at the Barbican featuring a large number of extras who swelled the crowd scenes. The play hurtled along to the death of Caesar; the funeral orations and the flight of the rebels at which point Warner broke for the interval. Thereafter, the production struggled to regain its earlier momentum, getting lost in the cavernous theatre.
SATTF director Tim Hilton wisely opts to take the interval immediately after the murder, providing a springboard into the second half of the play. He is also immeasurably helped by the intimacy of the Tobacco Factory venue and the virtual absence of props which enables the evening to race to its climax.
The strength of the company lies in the ensemble work, rather than star names who, on the evening I went, were in the audience (Timothy West and his wife, Prunella Scales). Still, the production does not feel undercast. There is in particular excellent work from Clive Hayward as Cassius, strong support from Leo Wringer as Brutus, Alan Coveney as Casca, and a charismatic Alun Raglan as Mark Antony who needs, however, to rein back the 'sturm' at times.
Hilton and designer Harriet de Winton opt to locate the play in the 17th century at the time of the English Civil War, when the debate about how the country ought to be governed, and by whom, and by what authority, was at its height.
Time and again Hilton, a scrupulous reader of the text, brings new insights. Thus when Leo Wringer, who played Othello in last year's season, is brought into the conspiracy by a trick, a series of planted letters by Cassius, one is reminded of Othello, whose iron self-belief is built on his sense of personal honour, the undermining of which is to prove the cause of his self-destruction.
And doesn't the device of a letter recall Malvolio, also a man with a strong sense of self-worth, who is similarly hoist by his own petard? It made me think again about how we Shakespeare means us to view Brutus, apparently unambiguously admirable. Some years ago an academic study was published which reassessed The Knight's Tale by Chaucer, also on the face of it a self-evidently heroic figure but which the author claimed was in fact deeply ironic.
Finally, credit should also be paid to sound designer and composer Dan Jones whose work greatly augments the production, from the roars of the crowd to the chirp of the cicadas which accompany talk at the rebels' camp.
The production didn't convince me that the play is a great one but it's the best argument I've seen for it to date. Comparison with the RSC production, to be staged later this year with their infinitely greater resources, will be fascinating.
Reviewer: Pete Wood