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Julius Caesar Archive

For the archive we have put our reviews of several productions of Julius Caesar on one page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.

RSC Barbican 2001 - RSC Roundhouse 2011 - Donmar 2012 - Donmar at King's Cross 2016 - RSC Barbican 2017 - Bridge 2018

Julius Caesar
Barbican Theatre Winter 2001-02

This seemingly simple play is one of those (like Twelfth Night) that always gives the RSC unexpected trouble, and the first hour of Edward Hall's current production is pretty dreary. Things get a lot better in the second half, though, recompensing those with patience.

Your heart sinks the minute the play begins and you see the fascist-era setting and costumes, surely one of the weariest theatrical cliches in productions of this play for the past sixty years. Ian Hogg is an attractive Caesar, a tired but still valiant old soldier who has earned his vanity and pleasure in power, but everyone else in the cast starts off badly.

The usually reliable Greg Hicks, whose work I have admired since his spearcarrier days, is a wooden and totally external Brutus, relating to no one else onstage - his scene with Claire Cox's Portia might be a telephone conversation for all the human contact they make - and giving no sense of any mental or emotional journey toward commitment to the conspiracy.

Meanwhile, Tim Pigott-Smith just does his familiar slimy villain shtick as Cassius, giving no sense of what drives the character; and Edward Hall directs everyone to just stand still, looking uncomfortable, while anyone else is talking.

Things pick up after the murder. Tom Mannion comes to Marc Antony's over-familiar funeral oration as if it had never been spoken before, and resists all its pull toward rhetorical flourishes, speaking with an engaging quiet naturalness that only gradually do we realize is the feigning of an extremely clever politician (reminding you of the old saw that sincerity is everything, and once you can fake that, you've got it made).

And, almost as if someone else had directed the second half of the play, Hicks and Pigott-Smith come alive in the pre-battle scenes, giving Brutus and Cassius a warmth and humanity we haven't seen before, and evocatively conveying both their need for each other's friendship and their weary forebodings of doom.

It is one of the best playings of that sequence I've ever seen, and almost worth the price of admission in itself, though director Hall continues his new-found inventiveness by movingly indicating the climactic battle, not by the RSC's usual flag-waving, but by just having some weary and wounded soldiers drag themselves onstage.

Despite extensive cutting of the text - I noted the absence of one whole scene and large chunks of others - the play runs well over two hours without an interval. But hang in there through the lifeless first half, and you'll be well rewarded.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Julius Caesar
Roundhouse January 2011

The RSC continues its London season at the Roundhouse with a revival of Shakespeare’s Roman play.

The production begins, in a sequence inspired by the photography of Eadweard Muybridge, with Romulus and Remus grappling to the death. The empty stage echoes with the slap of skin on skin as a city is birthed in blood.

Director Lucy Bailey, whose previous work includes a stand-out and memorably bloody Titus Andronicus at the Globe, seems comfortable with the large-scale requirements of the play and embraces the sandals-and-togas aesthetic fully, citing HBO’s Rome as a key influence.

Though saying this, designer William Dudley’s use of digital projections to background the action - showing the city in flames and Caesar’s statue crumbling to dust - do ever so occasionally also bring to mind the CGI cityscape of the rather less prestigious Spartacus: Blood and Sand.  But though sometimes jarring, these projections do allow Bailey to conquer the crowd scenes, multiplying the number of bodies on stage, in a stylized yet striking hall-of-mirrors effect.

Greg Hicks is a showman Caesar, theatrical in manner and aware of the impact of his every action. Even his “Et tu, Brute?” appears spoken as much for the effect it will have on those bloodying their hands as out of a sense of grief at his betrayal by his friend.

Sam Troughton, who recently starred in Rupert Goold’s acclaimed RSC Romeo and Juliet, provides the play with its most nuanced performance as a deceptively boyish Brutus. Initially he is confident, noble, and ever so slightly smug, but by the end he is a man worn down and haunted by the consequences of his actions; he seems to age visibly as the play progresses.

Darrell D’Silva’s Marc Antony is also impressive, especially during his pivotal speech. Against all this, John Mackay’s nervy and wiry Cassius rather fades into the background.

The momentum of the first half is considerable; after the brief opening scene the production explodes with the cacophony of Rome. The shorter second half, though laden with battle scenes and underscored by the ominous pulse of drums, sacrifices some of this drive. 

Natasha Tripney

Julius Caesar
Donmar Warehouse   Winter 2012-2013

We've had our share of all-male Shakespeares, and the occasional actress in a male role (Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero, Fiona Shaw as Richard II). Now it is time for an all-female Julius Caesar, and to no real surprise it works just fine. 

Indeed the only serious criticism to make of Phyllida Lloyd's production is that the director doesn't seem to have trusted her own vision or her audience sufficiently. Instead of just getting on with it, Lloyd felt the need to explain away the unusual casting by inventing a frame that finds us in a women's prison with the inmates putting on Shakespeare's play. 

This device offers a very few nice resonances, as when Frances Barber's very butch cellblock boss transmutes into Caesar, or when a dimwitted doll-clutching inmate uses the astrology page of her magazine to warn against the Ides of March. But, like most complicated directorial constructs, it eventually breaks down, the occasional reminders of the prison setting just becoming irrelevant interruptions to the play. 

Because the acting and direction make Julius Caesar itself as compelling and involving a drama as any conventional production could (and more than many do), so the gender of the performers becomes either irrelevant or, in a few cases, valuable enrichments of the characters. 

Harriet Walter presents a strong, thoughtful and almost androgynous Brutus, one whose authority and moral rectitude are never in doubt. Jenny Jules does allow Cassius a feminine side, beginning with an almost schoolgirlish jealousy of Caesar, but later adding very moving overtones to Cassius's clear emotional neediness in the pre-battle quarrel scene, so that Brutus and Cassius sound almost like an old married couple. 

Frances Barber uses the swagger of a masculine woman to bring out Caesar's bullying quality, Cush Jumbo is a very cool and calculating Antony, and Clare Dunne scores as both Portia and Octavius. 

Audiences learned long ago to be colour-blind in accepting and appreciating the best actors for Shakespearean roles. If this strong and engrossing production of Julius Caesar begins a process of guiding us to be gender-blind as well, that can only enlarge the range of roles open to our finest actresses and enrich the plays they appear in.

Gerald Berkowitz

Julius Caesar
Donmar at King's Cross  Autumn 2016

Phyllida Lloyd's 2012 all-female Donmar production of Julius Caesar is revived and restaged in the round in a temporary theatre tucked away behind King's Cross Station.

It plays a short repertory season with her 2014 Henry IV and a new Tempest, with the same partly new cast in all three and the same staging concept. 

My biggest criticism in 2012 was for the concept, director Lloyd imagining the play being performed by inmates of a women's prison. At the time, and again now, it seems mainly a way of explaining away the all-woman cast, a vote of no-confidence in either the concept or the audience. 

Fortunately the frame only interferes with the play a couple of times (though those interruptions, like stopping a scene because one of the prisoners needs her meds, are severely mood-breaking) and for the most part we get an intelligently trimmed-down (2 hours) straight-forward reading of the play. 

Given the time constraints, the actresses are generally allowed only one or two facets of their characters to play, but they play them well. 

Harriet Walter is a passionate Brutus devoting immense amounts of energy to repressing her feelings and displaying a stoic front. Much is made of the scene in which, after privately breaking down over Portia's death, she stage-manages a public moment in which she can pretend to handle the news bravely. 

Jackie Clune's Caesar has the cold superiority and patronising mode of a veteran schoolmistress, while Clare Dunne is impressive as a strong and determined Portia.

Jade Anouka's Antony is a practised demagogue skilfully and cold-bloodedly manipulating the crowd. (In one of the few effective uses of the frame, the frenzied mob turns into modern store-looters.) 

A program note suggests that the actresses, imagining themselves prisoners as well as Shakespearean characters, were able to connect to the Shakespeare more fully. 

You are not likely to sense any of that, and my advice would be to ignore the frame as much as you are permitted to, and just enjoy a well-done if not especially deep or resonant Julius Caesar.

Gerald Berkowitz

Julius Caesar
Barbican Theatre   Winter 2017-2018

The Royal Shakespeare Company brings to London a season of Shakespeare's four Roman plays – Coriolanus last month and now Julius Caesar, Antony And Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus in repertory through January. 

For this Julius Caesar director Angus Jackson has chosen a conversational rather than oratorical mode.

It isn't until after the interval, when Brutus and Marc Antony address the Roman crowd, that anyone speechifies, and things return to a more natural style immediately afterwards.

(And even in that scene there are surprises. Brutus's oration, usually spoken prosaically to be easily topped by Antony's eloquence, is here delivered by Alex Waldmann as Brutus's one attempt at rabble-rousing demagoguery, so that James Corrigan as Antony has to underplay, manipulating the crowd by taking them into his confidence through feigned intimacy.) 

Playing every other interchange more naturally than oratorically allows us glimpses into the characters we might otherwise miss. 

Because Cassius draws Brutus into the conspiracy we might see him as the stronger, but Martin Hutson plays him as younger, more hesitant and more emotionally needy, eager to please Brutus and win his approval. 

Meanwhile Waldmann finds Brutus so self-sufficient and inward-looking throughout the play that his most intimate relationship is with his own thoughts. Even his unquestionably sincere love for his wife comes second. 

Neither man is idealised or simplified. When Brutus calls for the assassins to cover themselves in Caesar's blood to win the crowd's sympathy, we sense a man deluded by his own conviction he's right, just as we later spot him clumsily trying to control his own myth when he pretends to take Portia's death stoically. 

Meanwhile this Cassius is aware enough of his own image of immaturity to make a passive-aggressive tool out of it, invoking it as an excuse for his misbehaviour on the eve of battle. 

All this makes for a thoroughly clear and accessible drama, and I noticed nary a fidget among the teenage school groups in the audience. It also makes for a somewhat less grand drama, and those more familiar with the play will miss any real sense of stature or tragedy.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Julius Caesar
Bridge Theatre   January-April  2018

Nicholas Hytner's production for the new Bridge Theatre is notable more for inventive production effects than as an interpretation of Shakespeare's play. 

Most of the characters are considerably simplified and their relationships flattened, and the play's explorations of honour, male bonding and Romanness almost completely eliminated. It is how the play is presented, more than the play itself, that may capture you. 

Certainly Ben Whishaw's Brutus is presented as far weaker, mentally and spiritually, than usual. The fact is underlined that he talks himself into the assassination with the most spurious of arguments, and many insight-providing moments are simply cut. 

The complex and attractive texture of his relationship with his wife is gone (leaving actress Leaphia Darko nothing to work with as Portia), as is the shifting dynamic of his bonds to Cassius. 

The main reason for both of those losses is that Cassius and most of the conspirators are played by women as women. This serves the admirable purpose of providing more roles for actresses, but not a whole lot more. 

Michelle Fairley is unable to find much in a female Cassius that wouldn't be there in a man, and the regendering actually loses some of the complexity of the Cassius-Brutus relationship.

It's because of this casting that Shakespeare's praise of stay-at-home live-through-her-husband Portia had to be dropped, and being surrounded and egged on by women makes Wishaw's already weakened Brutus occasionally seem henpecked. 

Elsewhere, David Calder's Caesar is a modern populist politician, playing regular-fella to the crowd but all imperious ego behind closed doors, while David Morrissey's Antony is a standard-issue hypocrite and crowd-manipulator. 

The most interesting thing about the production is Hytner's decision to stage it in promenade – that is, with several hundred of the audience inhabiting the same space as the actors, in effect becoming the mob, the citizens and the soldiers. 

Skilfully moved about by a team of audience-wranglers to keep them out of the way of the actors and of the bits of set that rise out of the floor for various scenes, they undoubtedly have a particularly intimate experience of the play and provide a strong visual image for those who choose to watch from more conventional seating. 

This device is not wholly original, of course, but Hytner certainly makes better use of the groundlings than just about any production ever at the Globe.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Julius Caesar - Barbican Theatre 2000; Roundhouse 2011; Donmar 2012; Donmar at Kings Cross 2016; Barbican 2017; Bridge 2018

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