“We need bold art more than ever now, so I wanted to create a version of Julius Caesar that pushes boundaries and takes the audience and actors out of their comfort zone.” So says director (& Caesar) William Vercelli about the Spada Productions version of the Shakespeare classic that has just begun a stint at Hoxton’s Courtyard Theatre; it certainly is bold, there’s no denying that, but the result is a bit of a mess. It’s hard to get a handle on the setting – the look is quite primitive (with varying degrees of paint smeared on the actors), but presumably Jenn Sambridge’s designs are attempts at a variation on a post-apocalyptic theme, as they have knives and a structure made up of metal poles (as well as what looks like a sand pit, for no apparent reason). Plus they’re all obsessed with getting their kit off. Even a funeral won’t stop them!
It’s completely overdone. By the time the naked ghosts of Caesar and Portia head into the light at the end it has become ridiculous; had it been limited to some sort of primal reaction to their brutal murder of Caesar I could understand it, but this just looks like they’re trying too hard to seem daring. For me, the out of the blue rape scene merely confirms this. And just wait until Brutus makes a request of Lucius later on (“Canst thou hold up thy heavy eyes awhile, and touch thy instrument a strain or two?”)…
There’s an attempt to bring more of the supernatural into it, but it feels largely unfulfilled. I can fully understand the practical reason for transferring lines to different characters, but this either needs to be done unceremoniously (thereby not drawing attention to it) or it needs to feel intrinsic to the world that’s created onstage – rather than Calphurnia (Aisha Kent) and Lucius (Tom Isted) randomly getting possessed, apropos of nothing.
It’s an interesting move to make Brutus (Matt Daniels) a bit of a bastard, as you’d often consider him the closest thing to a hero in this play; it’s an angle that’s worth exploring, but without adjusting the settings of any of the other characters it makes every single one of them fundamentally unlikeable. If there’s no one to root for, you can’t help but feel apathetic about the outcome. Mitch Howell’s Cassius looks and sounds like a cross between Gollum and Voldemort, with his painted white head and rasping voice – initially it seems as if he might actually be some sort of demon who has come to stir up trouble in the mortal world (which would go along with the supernatural thread), but really he’s just pining for Brutus and quickly becomes quite pathetic.
If they want to go for the shock factor, I think a cut-down version might be the answer; it’s clear that the text isn’t the focus and this would be the ideal way of making a statement. By abridging it and running straight through it would certainly raise the stakes and perhaps be a bit more consistent, as well as focusing on a message to put across to the audience.
My verdict? A muddled attempt to shock that quickly wears thin – and doesn’t seem to have anything to say.
Julius Caesar runs at the Courtyard Theatre until 31 March 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.