Monday, 30 June 2014

Theatre review: Julius Caesar (Shakespeare's Globe)

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: The critics don't seem to have been invited to this yet.

Rounding off (albeit in the wrong order) the trio of Roman plays in this summer's Globe season is Dominic Dromgoole's production of Julius Caesar. After defeating the tyrant Pompey, Julius Caesar (George Irving) returns to Rome a hero. Despite refusing three times to take the throne himself, Cassius (Anthony Howell) manages to convince a number of senators that Caesar is dangerously ambitious, and a plot to assassinate him is formed. A crucial part of Cassius' plan is to recruit Brutus (Tom McKay) to the conspiracy, as he is known as an honourable man and friend of Caesar's. If he's seen to be part of the plot it'll lend it legitimacy, rather than it appearing like a coup for power by the senators. But Brutus underestimates Caesar's faithful protégé Mark Antony (Luke Thompson,) and his powers of persuasion over the people.

I don't make any secret of the fact that I like some Shakespeare plays better than others, and that Julius Caesar is one of those I don't really get along with. The first third of the play feels like the same scene played out repeatedly, as the conspirators try to talk themselves and each other around to the murder; and after a strong middle, the climactic battles boil down to a lot of moping around in tents.

Given a strong production, of which there've been a few in recent years, I can forget my objections to the play but Dromgoole's isn't one of them. One of the main things it has going for it is speedy but clear line readings, but even so I felt the time drag. Dromgoole's productions at his own venue tend to feel either inspired or, like the disappointing Henry V in 2012, rather plodding, "heritage" Globe productions, and with Jonathan Fensom's somewhat generic Roman/Jacobethan design this unfortunately slots into the latter category. I did think for a moment there was a deliberate nod being made to Guy Fawkes' plot in the conspirators' costumes, but I might have been clutching at straws..

I think the cast is often the key to Globe shows, and apart from Christopher Logan's waspish Casca, whose sneeringly sarcastic description of Caesar's return to Rome is an argument for his assassination in itself, the conspirators don't really have distinct personalities. I like McKay but his Brutus is pretty one-note, which doesn't help my feeling that the first few acts go round in circles.

The canniest casting decision has been to bring back Thompson from last year's Midsummer Night's Dream to play Mark Antony. He's charismatic and nails the über-manipulative "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech, a ripple of laughter greeting "I am no orator, as Brutus is." He also first appears topless, in a context so gratuitous I can only applaud it, and displays almost Jamie Parker levels of enthusiasm for the final jig. Caplhurnia, meanwhile, is a disappointingly small role for Katy Stephens, and I can only hope she's been lured to the Globe for a larger part in one of the upcoming new commissions.

Julius Caesar opens during the festival of Lupercal, and with speeches by the box office, and supernumeraries providing entertainment outside the theatre itself, the production successfully appropriates some of this carnival atmosphere, but apart from a neat touch at the scene of Brutus' death, it doesn't really hold onto this inventive spirit. I know I can easily be distracted by a pretty face (and the rest) but when I end up as fixated on one cast member as I was on Luke Thompson by the end, it's a sign that there wasn't much else about the evening to grab my attention.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 11th of October at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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