I have no doubt Diane Page’s staging of Julius Caesar wanted to raise and answer profound questions about violence, power, politics and society; yet 2 hours and 40 minutes later the Shakespeare’s Globe production instead makes me wonder if one can ever have too much tambourine in a single play.
The answer is unequivocally yes.
The play’s programme tells me it asks – albeit across a lengthy and tiring duration – whether violence can ever end violence. Yet the tragedy in this Shakespeare classic is not in Brutus’ ill-fated toppling of Caesar’s tyranny, but in the fact that a fair amount of otherwise shocking fight scenes (including the titular character’s demise) generated laughter from the audience. It doesn’t make us question the necessity of violence; it encourages us to laugh at it. And while Page offers up a slightly different ending here which finally comments on this question, it feels rushed and too little, too late. There could have been a greater sense that violence only leads to more unstoppable violence ad infinitum, but this is hardly explored here.
This is only one element of Julius Caesar which doesn’t take itself seriously, despite the serious plot. Scene changes take far too long at times, stagnating an already drawn out play. Thunderous drums introduce the production, walking through the yard, but for the remainder of the production the music is relegated to muffled sounds backstage. A suggestion that war is on the horizon, perhaps, but the poor projection of actors is coupled with sounds which are more distracting than complementary, making the action hard to follow. So lax is the approach to Julius Caesar that the intentional comedy shines. Omar Bynon, as an enthusiastic, cheeky Decius and awkward Soothsayer, stands out for his playful approach to the characters.
Yet it is, unfortunately, a tiring production exploring tired symbolism. The contrasting black and white costumes, no doubt to symbolise polar opposites in a factional society, was employed as recently as the Globe’s take on Romeo and Juliet last year. It would be unfair to judge this Julius Caesar on what it doesn’t explore, but a booming Caesar (played by Dickon Tyrrell) in a production which is supposedly set in a modern society may well feel more current if he was populist – heck, even Trumpian – in his characteristics. There is only a thin nod to this in posters of Mark Anthony, in the style of Barack Obama’s famous ‘Hope’ graphic, slapped onto the pillars of the Globe’s stage.
Beyond the typical posturing expected of a great leader, there is little threat or recklessness in Tyrrell’s portrayal, and thus little to justify in a gender-swapped Brutus’ (Anna Crichlow) plan to take out the political leader.
Our protagonist – with whom, mind, we spend more time than with Caesar – is firm in stature and delivery, yet she appears to spend more time addressing the audience (even in quieter, private moments where there isn’t one at all) than her fellow cast members. Crichlow can deliver Shakespeare well with the classic lyrical nature associated with the Bard, though a key aspect of delivering his lines is to know when the posturing is appropriate. Brutus always considers themselves an orator and statesman for Caesar’s assassination, granted, and while there is an interesting contrast in her scripted delivery compared to the ad hoc feel of Mark Anthony’s address to the masses, little deviance from Brutus’ approach throughout the play means little room for vulnerability, indecisiveness or turmoil. The dialogue between her and other characters is instead stripped bare with little potency, the only intrigue being roused in visceral and intense fight sequences. Race is merely implied rather than investigated as an issue, class only acknowledged in the market scenes and the occasional line, and gender simply recognised in unconventional casting decisions – nothing more.
If only Julius Caesar was as punchy with its socio-political comments as it was with its violence.
Julius Caesar is now playing at Shakespeare’s Globe until 10 September.
The play will have a relaxed performance on 17 August, followed by an audio described showing on 20 August and a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted and captioned performance on 8 September.
Production Images: Helen Murray.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Julius Caesar’ for free in exchange for a review of the press performance as a member of the media. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.