St Paul’s Church Covent Garden
Thunder rolls across the sky in Covent Garden but this outdoor / indoor Shakespeare is not being threatened by rain; it is all part of Filipe Gomes all-pervasive sound design for this virile, passionate promenade production.
The tranquil inner-city garden of St Paul’s (the Actors’ Church) and the church interior may not seem the obvious setting for Caesar’s Rome and the battlefield of Philippi but, from the moment the drum-like sound of baton beats on riot shields approaches from the piazza and Matthew Mellalieu’s Caesar and his cohorts march in among the audience gathered in the paved yard of the church, Daniel Winder’s production creates its own atmosphere.
Costumed by Joanna Beart-Albrecht in tattered tee-shirts over black jeans with black cricket box cod pieces, bovver boots, leather, chains, plate armour pieces and protective padding and with heads close-cropped, this has a feel of Mad Max meets the Coliseum as these men engage in a ritualised combat in the middle of what has become the watching Roman crowd.
“What trade art though?” asks one of Caesar’s followers in a shortened opening scene. “A pensioner,” came the answer from the spectator questioned. “So where are your dressing gown and bus pass” the impromptu response, but despite considerable cuts, and perhaps a few interpolations, this is a production that stays true to the spirit of the text and it delivers a clear exposition of both the political and personal trajectory of its story.
This is a Caesar who, when he asks for men about him whom who are fat, is asking for well- fed fellows like himself; He is confident in his power and used to winning in this macho world—Matt Wilman’s Mark Antony is not competing in Shakespeare’s footrace but in an all-in bout with Daniel Hanna’s Casca.
But these are not mere bully-boys, they are clever too. When the time comes, seemingly compliant Mark Antony is going to prove a skilled spin-doctor. Whatever personal advantage Cassius may expect to gain, Nick Howard-Brown plays him as an impassioned republican and David Hywel Baynes’s upright, honest Brutus is deep thinking and unswerving in his dedication.
Baynes in the early scenes sometimes breaks the verse mid line, pushing the emphasis against the sense, which serves to underline Brutus’s initial hesitancy. In confident full flow he gives the character an energy and charisma that drives the play forward. His fellow actors match his pace and deliver the verse well with a projection that makes them always audible, not easy in large outdoor spaces.
When Caesar proceeds to the Senate, the patricians donning toga-like cloaks to add formality, some of the audience don masks to become senators. All make their way into the church in a dazzle of light to the triumphant sound of Handel’s coronation anthem Zadok the Priest. Here, director Winder stages a coronation beneath a towering statue before the conspirators come forward and, in an intermittently slow-motion and fast-forward sequence of operatic proportions, assassinate Caesar.
Outside again, the steps to the church become the platform for Brutus and Mark Antony to make their great funeral speeches and what follows before moving across the garden to Brutus’s tent near Phillipi where Simon Kent’s Lucius is strumming on a guitar. Despite the surrounding audience, designer Ian Latimer gives this scene an air of real intimacy; it does not seem unnatural for a member of the audience to be pouring wine for Brutus, but there is no let-up in intensity.
Come morning, the armies confront each other on the plains of Philippi and the audience follows them across the gardens into battle until the fog of white light in the church swallows the combatants. And so they too pass into the mists for the dramatic conclusion, stunningly presented.
Brutus staggers through the smoke of war, the image compensating for the difficulties of the church acoustic, until the play’s final moments when Laura Wickham appears, the only female in this cast. She has already played both Brutus’s wife Portia and Caesar’s wife Calpurnia in quick succession and too the poet Cinna, her face is still bloody-mouthed from that role. Is she a ghost, Portia perhaps, or some other spirit. But, unlike the Caesar whom Brutus saw pre-Philippi, this spirit is a friendly one and brings the play to its conclusion in a wordless coda.
This is the fifth year that Iris Theatre has presented summer promenade productions at St Paul’s. Using the same spaces, it is easy for shows to follow a familiar pattern, but this production is full of surprises. It flows through the space, moving naturally from place to place without hold-ups or loss of atmosphere.
It is hard to believe that it has been created with such power and clarity with only seven actors, a triumph of imaginative staging and compelling performances.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton