The Tab Reviews: Julius Caesar

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Phoenix Theatre Company’s production of Julius Caesar promoted itself as ‘reimagined for the era of post-truth populism’; after watching the production, one can only ask, ‘where’s the imagination?’ Caesar is after all Shakespeare’s first great tragedy, and arguably the first political thriller: it’s a short play (only around half the length of Hamlet) full of violent intensity.

And yet, this production fails to do justice to Shakespeare’s compelling text – and with a first half of ninety minutes (if only Caesar’s death had marked the interval), removes the pace that makes the play so urgent. At school, Julius Caesar was taught with the maxim that it was ‘Brutus’ play’; after tonight’s performance, it should perhaps now be labelled ‘Cassius’ play’, for of the main characters only Theo Holt-Bailey as ‘that spare’ was convincing.

It was an immensely frustrating production. Caesar is the perfect play to explore notions of how the truth can be manipulated and distorted – look at how the masses go wild over Antony’s reading of the manifestly fabricated will – but they’re rarely touched upon.

Equally ignored is the play’s prophetic themes – although Alice Chambers made the most of the supernatural lines in her sadly-limited role as Calpurnia, and the excision of Act II Scene IV with its dialogue between Portia and the soothsayer was baffling. Zac Tiplady captured well the testy autocrat of Caesar, but his reappearance as the Ghost was not quite chilling enough.

In recent times, two interpretations of Brutus have emerged: as a high-minded liberal, driven to act out of fear, and a dogmatic, incompetent tactician. As Brutus, Owen Sparkes tends towards the former, but his equivocations – unlike in his gripping performance in Foxfinder – come across merely as an extension of his anxious disposition, rather than the expressions of genuine moments of doubt.

Sparkes is at his best alongside Holt-Bailey’s murderous Cassius, whose facial contortions and taut delivery convey truly that ‘lean and hungry look’, and in their quarrel at the end of Act IV, when Brutus shockingly reveals Portia’s suicide – but there was not a great enough sense of Brutus’ wounded authority, nor was his realisation of his defeat conveyed sufficiently.

It is by no means a failure. Holt-Bailey’s performance rightly takes the plaudits, and while the post-truth setting may be poorly realised with regards to the text, but the set is brilliantly created – the back wall plastered with Shepard Fairey-esque photos of Caesar; if the play had been shaped so well to the theme as the set, this may have been a terrific production. Instead, it has fallen short.