Given the current political climate, it seems to be the thing these days for a theatre company to reinterpret Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with a very Trump like figure in the title role. In the US this has even led to anything with the name Shakespeare associated with it getting death threats from Trump supporters. For some reason they did not like the image of a Trump like figure being brutally assassinated on stage. Even though the play is not at all about glorifying or condoning assassination as a method of political protest.
With the above in mind, I headed off to the Storyhouse open air theatre in Chester to see their interpretation of the Roman epic history play.
I do have one thing to admit before I continue, however. Something which may lose me Shakespeare cred points or something. This was the first time I had ever seen Julius Caesar…
I mean, I am not a total newbie to the Bard. I’m familiar with several of his plays, having seen them performed by a number of companies including the Storyhouse troupe. However, way back in school we were offered as a class a choice between three plays – Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet. Naturally, being teenagers, we voted overwhelmingly for bloody violence and so romance and political coups passed us by. Since then, I’ve always naturally gravitated to the more fantastical based stories than what were perceived as the serious histories. I’ve preferred not only Macbeth, with its witches and concepts of predestination, but also Midsummer Nights Dream with its faeries and the Tempest with its spirits and magicians, all precursors of modern fantasy and tapping into ancient myths and legends. Julius Caesar was something I never really felt the need to see.
So I arrived at the open air ‘theatre in the round’ in Grosvenor Park in Chester not really knowing what to expect save a passing knowledge of classical history, several viewings of HBO’s Rome with it’s bastardised version of events and the absolute certain knowledge that at some point in the play Caesar gets stabbed repeatedly in the forum.
Oh, and that the chances were they would be Trumping up Caesar.
Which seemed to be the case as the opening scenes of jubilant citizens were replete with ‘Make Rome Great Again’ placards and the set dressing had a certain ‘stars and stripes’ feel to them. However, there the comparisons to the current US president disappear. Despite superficial details, this Caesar is modelled more on the lines of a generic US president than any specific one – no orange faced caricature here. Instead we get a charismatic, grey haired, white man who plays the crowd by literally walking through the crowd shaking hands with the audience, his trophy wife in tow and a gaggle of aides and bodyguards on all sides. An elder statesman at the height of his power. His dialogue and actions are all as Shakespeare wrote them. of course, and the performance of the actor (Christopher Wright) who plays him works well to give the impression of a popular but controversial figure without devolving into petty parody. This is in a marked contrast to the reports of the controversial New York portrayal which had the actor dressed and acting more like the current incumbent and there were dialogue references to ‘5th Avenue’.
In fact, a more notable sign of this play being interpreted for the modern day is in some of the other casting. Several characters, including the pivotal role of Mark Anthony (played by Natalie Grady), have been gender flipped here. This is a good, positive move for a 21st century production, especially as not only is the character who gets the (in)famous and most identifiable ‘lend me your ears’ speech a woman but so is Cinna (one of the conspirators) and Lucius (Brutus’s servant). None of these character has significant changes to their personality or actions as a result of this change, apart from the point where Mark Anthony and Octavius seal their alliance against Brutus and the conspirators with a kiss*. This creates several strong and interesting female characters in a play where traditionally most of the main characters are male and female characters limited to relatively secondary roles without seeming to water down the roles at all. Cinna is still keen to commit the assassination and Mark Anthony is still as keen and ruthless in avenging it.
The modern touches are see throughout. Casca, for example, at one point dresses in a trenchcoat and looks like an aged CIA or FBI agent which is a nice touch and the various ‘rude mechanicals’ are dressed in clothes that can only be described as ‘chav’ and carry cans of lager as they are being obnoxious at the main players. During the riot scenes, several can be seen carrying the box for a flatscreen TV and other consumer goods in a clear nod to the way every single riot in The Simpsons seems to end in looting. Most of the main characters, being patricians, are of course well dressed in smart suits, though they do change to modern military garb later.
The plot moves through the first act with the conspiracy and the seduction of Brutus, ending the first act with the well known ‘et tu Bruti’ line and much blood spilled. The second act explores the aftermath, with the war between Brutus and Mark Anthony triggered by Anthony’s provocative speech to the plebians (which makes good use of actors planted in the audience for a more immersive feel). Of course, followers of history (or watchers of HBO’s Rome) know how that ends for all involved…
Overall, this is a well performed piece of theatre. Immersive without being too much ‘in your face’ and making good use of popular, modern references without breaking the essential nature of the original play. The parts are all well played with strong performances from all. An entertaining evening that has definitely changed my mind about Shakespeare’s more historic stories.
*Would be interesting to know if the director would have included that touch if both characters had been male or both female.