By Ralph Goldswain
With a cast of only eight actors, bringing this great play, which has some of Shakespeare’s major roles and scores of minor characters, with battle-ground and civil crowd scenes, to the stage is a sleight of hand, which Diane Page effectively manages.
That’s largely due to the flexibility and fine acting skills of the supporting cast. Cash Holland and Amie Frances as Portia and the innocent bystander mistaken for Cinna the poet and having to absorb the mob’s anger, respectively, deserve a special mention, with Amie Frances, particularly, putting everything into being beaten to death. The prize though, goes to Omar Bynon as the cobbler who starts the ball rolling, bringing the audience into the action from the word go, prompting them to shout “Pompey is pants” as he conducts them. Audiences love that, and here, too, being given the opportunity to cheer Marc Antony on when he addresses the crowd. Ms Page blurs the lines between stage and real-life by extensive use of the audience in that way, the audience yelling out its fickle political allegiances, and it works beautifully.
It is the power tug-of-war – tyranny, freedom, war and peace – as it manifests four centuries after the play was first performed that interests Diane Page. Her preoccupation with any classic is what that story means to us now, she tells us. “I wanted to repurpose Julius Caesar to challenge what power looks like now, especially for women,” she wrote. So the question is, how successful has she been?
Dickon Tyrell’s well-rounded Caesar exhibits Trumpian characteristics, both in public, in military uniform, and at home in his dressing gown, with some very fine acting, able to bring out Caesar’s unwillingness to heed advice, his vanity and the chink in his armour, a fatal susceptibility to flattery, in spite of his having to rush through it in the context of a speedy pace for that section of the play.
Samuel Oatley’s interpretation of Marc Antony is interesting and refreshing. Behind the serious, power-grabbing politician is a fun-loving laid-back human being, always threatening to inject humour even into his great “Friends, Romans, countryman” oration. And he performs that speech, with all its cynicism and manipulative skill, to perfection.
There are also some nice touches that meet Ms Page’s intention, such as the Trumpian Caesar’s ‘cancelling’ by the removal of his statue, like the felling of that of Sadam Hussein and the removal and dumping of Edward Colston’s in Bristol harbour.
It is in the later, post-interval, section, where the relationship between Cassius and Brutus is developed, that Ms Page’s interest really lies, though. She has invested heavily in reinventing the characters as women – Charlotte Bate as a lean and hungry-looking Cassius and a more serious better-fed Brutus, played by Anna Crichlow, and it’s there that things begin to fall apart.
By changing the gender of the two characters Ms Page has the obligation to think her decision through, and convince us, and here, possibly lies a problem. These are two very masculine characters, speaking the macho language of two men more involved in violent acts than in anything else. Putting it in the mouths of women somehow doesn’t ring true. Mixed into that are some unsatisfactory loose ends, such as Brutus being in a same sex marriage. Interesting, nothing wrong with that, but where does it go in this production? And there are suggestions of a sexual attraction between the two characters. Nothing wrong with that, but where does it go as regards the meaning of the play? That aspect is introduced but not explored.
‘Love’ is a major theme in the play. In Shakespeare’s text it’s essentially about the Roman concept of love, which is about friendship, respect by one man for another, and patriotism – love of country – so when Brutus says he loved Caesar but he loved Rome more it’s about all those things, and when he addresses the crowd as ‘lovers’ he’s appealing to their patriotism. And Marc Antony also means that as he proclaims his love for his assassinated friend. However, when Cassius and Brutus have their big row Charlotte Bate wails “You love me not,” in a very feminine way, she’s interpreting the line as a complaint by a woman abandoned by a lover, thereby losing some of the main themes, or at least, warping them, and substituting a Page-invented theme that goes nowhere.
In Shakespeare’s theatre all the female roles were played by boys and young men. Audiences were used to that and with the boys in appropriate costumes the suspension of disbelief came quite naturally. In many present day productions women play male roles, as men, in appropriate costumes, and the same applies. However, changing the gender of a Shakespeare character can raise questions that have nothing to do with the meaning of the play. And that’s what’s wrong with this production – too many untied-up loose ends, particularly in the second part of the play, which is often a somewhat shrill, over-emotional shouting rather than Shakespeare’s punch-by-punch, carefully sculpted, argument between an angry man and a better composed, also male, adversary. While the acting of these two actors is competent, to play these two major Shakespeare males, using the carefully crafted masculine language, is a big ask. There’s a frequent mismatch between the masculine rhetoric and the female physical gestures and mannerisms.
The questions of power and authority are clear and evident in Shakespeare’s text. They are already thoroughly relevant to our lives today. There is some valuable highlighting of issues of our time in this production, though, such as the difficulty women have in gaining access to power. Also, the way the two women, as Cassius and Brutus, go beyond the pure power grabbing we see in the three men – Julius Caesar, Octavius and Marc Antony – to more of a philosophical concern with that naked power drive as a detriment to civil life. Ms Page has the right to explore those things, and to stretch Shakespeare’s text. It’s the done thing in Shakespeare performances these days. But she dilutes the action and plays loose with the rhetoric, twisting it to her purposes. It doesn’t quite work, but three cheers for her for trying.
Have you seen this play yourself? We’d love to hear what you thought of it in the comments section below!