David Farr launches his career as Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith with a re-staging of his Julius Caesar. This loud and lively production was first seen touring the country with the RSC.
It is perhaps unfortunate that there has already been a modern dress version of the play in London this year. The Barbican Caesar was directed by Deborah Warner on a gigantic budget that allowed lavish sets, stars including Simon Russell Beale, Anton Lesser, Fiona Shaw and Ralph Fiennes and a cast with over 100 more members than Farr's.
While comparisons are inevitable, this production does not do too badly and, thanks to some clever directorial flourishes and well-maintained pace, constantly holds the attention throughout its 2¾ hours.
Christopher Saul's Julius Caesar is a violent leader, intentionally modelled on an imagined dictator of a contemporary former Russian state. When angered, he looks like nothing so much as a bewildered, raging bull. Indeed, in his final speech, he evokes the memory of Hitler preaching murder. It is therefore easy to see why his fellows wish to see him dead.
The leading pair of conspirators may be "brothers" but make a fine contrast. Adrian Schiller plays lean Cassius, a bitter, murderous man, while Zubin Varla's Brutus is truly a noble Roman. Here is a smooth, ambitious, political man who takes time to persuade himself that the murder of an emperor is worth the risk of ensuing anarchy.
Varla's eulogy to Caesar is moving. Unfortunately, the boxer-like Gary Oliver lacks the gravitas to play Mark Antony and it is hard to see why the citizens, suspended from scaffolding, are swayed away from the arguments of Brutus.
After the interval, we are thrown into an anarchic world where civil war rages. The otherwise sure-footed director commits a couple of errors, first illogically allowing the murderous Mark Antony to fight under a UN flag. Far worse is the scene leading into war with a bubblegum pop song initiated by the resurrected Cinna, come miraculously to life after a brutal murder following mistake identity. This is like Lord Lloyd Webber at his worst.
The war itself, like the "civil strife in heaven" storm, is cleverly but very simply created with both sound and light - very dramatic.
The acting at its best is excellent but more widely is uneven, with strongest support for Varla and Schiller from Rachel Pickup as Brutus' wife Portia and Richard Clews in a number of parts.
Where Farr really scores is in the staging designed by Ti Green. This supplements a minimal set with Dogme-type handheld film shots, costumes that vary from those of rich media-types to leather-jacketed bouncers, and the afore-mentioned light (Neil Austin) and sound (Martin Slavin) designs.
This is a good if not always polished production that both gains and loses meaning by its resetting in the 21st Century. It has a real sense of danger and the updating will particularly allow younger customers to appreciate Shakespeare in a setting with which they might feel more at ease than the usual togas and columns.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher