A nearly bare stage, save for a blank cube in the centre, sets the scene for the RSC’s touring production of Shakespeare’s political tragedy, Julius Caesar. As an absolute Shakespeare nerd, I’m excited to see what the RSC have brought to this most recent production of the play. And as the play begins, with a loud rumbling and an almost primal display of noise and interpretive movement from the entire cast, I’m certain not to be disappointed.
Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies; it is a story of divisive leadership and reluctant betrayal, and the bloody fall-out which often follows such a revolution. This relevant and very modern production of the play, directed by Atri Banerjee, deals with themes of gender, power and leadership, explored primarily through the characters of Cassius and Brutus, neither of whom adhere to the typical casting of white cis male. What’s more, five local women, all community leaders who champion equality, diversity, inclusion and sustainability, perform alongside the professional actors as part of the Community Chorus to highlight these themes within the play itself. Khaya Job, Orla O’Connor, Shuguftah Quddoos, Laura Thurman, and Becky Valentine, coordinated by Rebecca Morris, provide a threatening chorus to the show, alongside the powerful vocals of Alexandra Ferrari, and under the musical direction of Rachel Parks, which all adds to the unsettling atmosphere of the play.
Thalissa Teixeira is exceptional as the well-loved and respected Brutus; she captures beautifully the decline of Brutus from reluctant revolutionary and respected leader to one grappling with guilt and grief. And Teixeria’s measured Brutus is perfectly balanced against the bold and rebellious Cassius, played masterfully by Annabel Baldwin. Baldwin’s impassioned speeches as they plead with Brutus to take action against Caesar are spellbinding, showing what an incredibly talented actor they are. The chemistry between the two is endearing, and both speak Shakespeare’s iconic verse so naturally and with such skill that the audience can’t fail to feel its relevance today, as much as ever.
William Robinson gives a strong performance as Mark Antony, Caesar’s loyal right-hand man who assumes control of Rome following the death of his friend. Robinson delivers a masterclass in rhetoric as the lights come up on the audience and he bids ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears’, with a rousing rendition of this most famous speech. This is punctuated, rather comically, by the words of the crowd, all voiced brilliantly by Niamh Finlay, who also plays the soothsayer warning Caesar ‘Beware the Ides of March, and whose sinister presence throughout the play adds another menacing layer.
Nigel Barrett commands the stage as Caesar, oozing charisma and arrogance but also adding an element of humour to his performance, particularly in the second act. And his loving wife, Calpurnia, is played with great emotion by Jimena Larraguivel, who assumes the role of Pindarus in Act 2.
Other notable performances for me come from Matthew Bulgo as the cynical Casca, one of Cassius and Brutus’ fellow revolutionaries, and Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, who plays a devoted Portia, concerned for the wellbeing of Brutus, and who also for this performance steps in as Octavius Caesar in Act 2, showing her versatility.
Rosanna Vize’s design for the very modern and simple set is hugely effective, as the cube in the centre rotates to reveal and represent different settings, from the capital of Rome to the privacy of Brutus’ home, and provides a backdrop for clever use of projections, animated by Adam Sinclair, and lighting, designed by Lee Curran. Sound is also used to great effect in this production, and Claire Windsor has done an excellent job in building the ominous atmosphere on stage.
An exceptional contemporary production which provides a sterling lesson from the RSC of the continued importance and relevance of Shakespeare’s words and stories to our modern world; utterly compelling from start to finish.