Julius Caesar, Wilton’s Music Hall, 22 March 2012
In the early twenty-first century, revolutions are being made overwhelmingly by the young. So when the students of Lamda appeared in a production of Julius Caesar and acted out the play’s meditations on political violence and its repercussions, the result felt incredibly topical.
The historical Roman conspirators were mostly middle-aged and productions that cast actors of a similar age are not betraying history. But a young ensemble can make a great difference to the atmosphere of the play.
A stepped semicircular extension at the front of the main Wilton’s stage brought the action closer to the audience, while at the back a curved track bore tall white sliding boards that were reconfigured to create walls and entrances.
Roman costumes were used throughout as were approximations of Roman lanterns and other paraphernalia.
The production ran without an interval for around two hours. Minor characters like Cinna the Poet, Titinius, Ligarius, Dardanius and Artemidorus were cut. The entire first scene also went missing, so that the production got underway with the Lupercal games of 1.2.
Launching straight into a crowd scene had the advantage of establishing the main characters. A female soothsayer lurked in the background brandishing a bone necklace.
As the scene shifted focus to become an intense look at the two main conspirators Cassius (Alexander Rain) and Brutus (Ladi Emeruwa), the young actors did very well to maintain interest over such long wordy exchange.
Caesar (Tom Hudswell) looked rough and thuggish, someone used to getting their way by charm or force as required. This contrasted with his more intellectual opponents, so that when he criticised Cassius for thinking too much, the audience was left with the impression that deep thought was an activity that probably never troubled Caesar to any great extent.
Mark Antony (Nicholas Prasad) seemed cut from a similar cloth to Caesar, making them natural partners.
We saw more of Cassius wild side during the storm scene (1.3).
As lightning effects indicated the night’s tempest, the drenched, shirt-sleeved Cassius looked about him like a scavenging animal, simultaneously frightened and energised by the harsh conditions. This aura of wild energy was something that came naturally to the young actor, but would have seemed strange in an older man.
When he heard Caska’s news that the senators planned to invest Caesar as king, Cassius snatched Caska’s dagger and brandished it, talking vaguely of suicide. But his aggression was firmly directed outwards, which foreshadowed his impending role in the assassination.
Cassius looked like Hamlet after a course of therapy to cure his indecisiveness. In his anger he lashed out at Caska, kicking him down some steps. A scene that normally involves greybeards looking slightly sodden, was here transformed into an action sequence conveying the idea that dark deeds were afoot.
On the day of his murder, Caesar’s bravado looked more like youthful overconfidence rather than sureness borne of experience. Decius’ flattering interpretation of his dream made him visibly swell with pride.
The Soothsayer continued to hover in background, reminiscent of Margaret in Kevin Spacey’s Richard III.
The conspirators sat in a semicircle next to Caesar. Metellus got up from among them to address Caesar with his back to audience. Caesar stood and then the others rose and kneeled before him. “Speak hands for me” was uttered as code word to signal the start of the attack. Brutus struck last against Caesar who was now pinioned by one of the others.
The immediate aftermath of the murder was characterised by a febrile atmosphere of insecurity to which the student cast automatically gave a feeling of genuine helplessness.
Antony’s reaction on discovering Caesar’s dead body was to remove his shirt and embrace the conspirators rather than shake hands with them. As the murderers were covered in Caesar’s blood, each successive embrace caused increasing amounts of the blood to besmear Antony’s torso, so that by the end he was stained with it as well. This looked very effective and was achieved with a minimum of gore.
The inexperienced Brutus adopted a defensive posture with his hands when addressing the plebeians as if fending them away.
By contrast, Antony had to shout down the Romans to be heard and was soon alluding to Caesar’s body, which was laid at the back of the set in full view. The success of his manipulation of the throng could be seen in the way that they crowded round, begging him to read Caesar’s will. This showed how he had literally moved them to support him.
There was a very interesting performance from Hannah Taylor Gordon as a female Octavius, whose restrained and clipped words struck a strange note just as things started to fall apart for the conspirators Cassius and Brutus, now fled from Rome.
The scene between them at Sardis was speeded up as part of the general effort to get the production in at under two hours, so we did not have to wait long to see the ghost of Caesar who appeared bloodied at the back of the stage.
The meeting between the opposing armies was cut from the start of act five. Once Cassius realised they had lost, he had Pindarus run him through with his sword and lay at the foot of the semicircular downstage platform.
Lucilius pretended to be Brutus in an excellently choreographed fight sequence that would have graced a professional production, until he was discovered by Antony. Strato held a sword as Brutus jumped down on to it from back, thus putting the last of the conspirators out of action.
After Octavius spoke the final words in the play, Caesar appeared, took the string of bones from the Soothsayer and threw them to the ground as if marking the conclusion of his curse. This was a clever but slightly incoherent idea, as the precise relationship between the Soothsayer and Caesar had not been established and this parting gesture felt bolted on.
This student production of Julius Caesar delivered a radically different experience to a standard offering that was illuminating and thought-provoking.
In the light of contemporary youth-led political revolutions, it managed to be topical without ever aiming at such topicality.
The two-hour run time without interval created a unified performance, whose reduced second half cut much of the overly laboured denouement.
The Mahogany Bar at Wilton’s does a roaring midweek trade, but this means that the sound of revellers can leak through into the auditorium during quiet moments, which provided a minor annoyance.