Review: Julius Caesar

MILO YIANNOPOULOS: “Was this the product of a drunken night in the JCR? Something that was left unchecked by good sense and allowed to blossom into an entire production?”

Doug Johnson fitzwilliam Julius Caesar Laura Marshall

Monday 8th – Saturday 13th, 7.00 in the Fitzwilliam College Auditorium.  £4-6.

Directed by Doug Johnson and Laura Marshall.

My God, the wine was awful. The wine in the interval, I mean. We’re not just talking David Hyde Pierce-style “Oh my God it’s just called ‘wine’,” or even out-of-a-box gyppo juice. (It wasn’t, anyway. I saw the bottles.) To give you some idea, I was accompanied to the theatre by a friend from Serbia, who said it was worse than Moldavian vinegar. I don’t know what he means. Maybe you do.

So, the play. They made Julius Caesar into Margaret Thatcher and set the whole thing around the 1981 Tory conference. Ha fucking ha. Red braces, white collars and cream ties conflated Gordon Gekko with big-c Conservatism, and later in the show the mob were identified with punk. You can see where this is going. It didn’t work. The civil war, as Roman historians have it, makes no sense in relation to the disintegration of Thatcher’s leadership. You can’t map Caesar on to this period in British history; there aren’t enough points of confluence. It feels like a gimmick, because that’s what it is. So it got old. Quickly.

Where did they get this idea from? Was it the product of a drunken night in the JCR? Something that was left unchecked by good sense and allowed to blossom into an entire production? It doesn’t really matter. When Lucius cuts Brutus a line of coke in place of lighting him a taper, we know this is paradise. (I hope Guy Francis was using vitamin C powder on stage. Something tells me this simulation of class-A drug use is going to come back to bite FitzTheatre in the arse.)

The second half was better. Interesting, because it’s by far the weaker half of Shakespeare’s play. One explanation is Jenny Harris’s absence, but Richard Benwell’s suddenly magnificent delivery can’t be ignored. Actually, Jenny was rather good, though she gave Thatcher a haughty air that the role commands but Maggie never really had. Besides, 1981 was the year of the bomb attack on the Grand Hotel; Thatcher knew better than to be magisterial. Harris made a good job of the Northern star line, echoing Thatcher’s reassurances to Parliament that the poll tax would be popular. Similar end results in both cases. Nicely done.

I’d forgotten how unsophisticated Julius Caesar is. But any Shakespeare play is a hubristic project for a single College’s theatre company. They almost got away with it. Benwell delivered the “honourables” as well as anyone I’ve seen at the Globe. Steady, though, Richard: you need to man up a bit to give us a convincing Mark Anthony. After the assassination, you exploded onto the stage in what can only be described as… a tizz. Not very statesmanlike.

I was momentarily drawn to John Swarbrooke’s Metellus Simber, but this was Ben Woodford’s play really. His Cassius was part David Geffen, part William Hague. Appropriately oleaginous. A bit psychotic. More robust than the average Cassius – more of a Bosola, I think – but we forgave him that. And he was the only one who felt like a proper Tory: Portia scolded like Harriet Harman, while her voice was indistinguishable from Jacqui Smith’s; Brutus’s Blairite speech at Julius’s funeral had me heaving; Decius’s quick-wittedness was straight out of Alistair Campbell’s diaries. Octavius was just fucking weird.

Pity about the props. The daggers looked like plastic canteen cutlery, the chairs and tables looked like crap, and, let’s be honest, trying to pass off a red Rymans boxfile as the Chancellor’s briefcase was pretty dumb. But these are minor things.

The big gripe was the central conceit. Julius Caesar could never be a woman, and Tory-bashing isn’t big or clever. But even forgiving that, the directors didn’t need to mess with the script, changing all the hes and hims. It ruined, for example, Mark Anthony’s, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” (which was rendered “not to praise her” instead; the trailing, open-ended vowel on “her” robbing the line of its intensity).

The wine was called La Maison de Charlotte. You can get it in Tesco for £3.33. But don’t.