The dark iron chandeliers were low in the Teviot debating hall as the dark world of the University Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar enveloped the audience with the infamous story of intrigue, betrayal and cold-blooded murder.
The show bursts into life with the inclusion of a live Jazz band, which was a fantastic addition and kept the momentum running during complex scene changes. They play for the entertainment of the pre-eminent mob boss, Gaius Julius Caesar, performed by Francesco Davi, who is living the high life with a cigar in his hand in the dark mob bar where the majority of Act 1 is set. Showgirls dance for the amusement of the mobsters in their dimly lit bar. Gangsters in dark suits drink and smoke. The audience is completely drawn into the underworld of 1950s New York.
This is how the University of Edinburgh Shakespeare Company opened its major play for this year. Directed by Devki Panchmatia, this version of Caesar is set in the underbelly of 1950s New York, with Roman senators turned envious gangsters. This choice was an extremely good one and fit with the story excellently. The blending of the New York accent with Shakespearean verse may have been a little baffling to begin with, but once the audience got used to the rhythm, the production created a nice blend of the two that kept the audience engaged for the whole three hours.
Haig Lucas is excellent throughout as the slick and stylish Brutus. He projects the statesman-like mobster seamlessly and effectively brings the audience in to reveal his true emotions in intimate soliloquies revealing Brutus’s conflicted state. This provides a very interesting contrast with Tom Well’s skittish Cassius, who always appears uncomfortable, twitching his hands and eye. This choice may feel jarring at first, but I think it is a nice interpretation of the character, adding to the possible reasons for Cassius’s jealousy of the powerful Caesar and humanising him further beyond the envious backroom schemer. Francesco Davi, as Caesar, held the stage with all the magnetism of the mob boss, his slow speech projecting an image of comfortable power. His scene with Lucy Melrose as Calpurnia was gripping, with the tension over whether the proud Caesar will go to the Senate and certain doom. Melrose was excellent, and along with Rozalie Andelova, as the sweetly flattering Decius Brutus, this scene stood out.
There were also some stand-out performances from the smaller roles. Notably, Casca, played by Isabelle Hodgson, enters as a breath of fresh air, bringing an upbeat comedic contrast to the dark surroundings and subject material. Also, Izzy Salt as Lucius, Brutus’s loyal servant, was extremely compelling in Act 2, coming out of the background with an emotional and captivating performance despite a previously small role in Act 1.
The group scenes of Part 1 were very good, especially Anthony’s Speech, performed by Julia Lisa, which was an excellent ending to Part 1. However, in Part 2, barricades were placed on stage for the street war between the assassin’s supporters and Octavius’s Crew. There was lots of group stage fighting between these two factions, and at times it was not the best, with too much going on, complicated by the use of guns, which had to be synced to the sound effects of the actors wielding them. Consequently, sometimes the gunshot would be heard before the actor was ready; thus, the sense of danger was lost. However, we cannot fault the production too much on this point, as such group fighting is always hard on stage (note: unless you’re willing to hurt your actors!).
Other earlier moments broke the tension. Awkward posturing, chameleon accents, and odd blocking occasionally distracted from the main plot. Furthermore, the characters constantly had cigarettes or cigars, which seemed to impact their gesturing and drew the audience’s focus. However, despite these moments, the story really pulls you in, which is very difficult for a production to do with Caesar, as it is a very politically charged play which the audience ultimately only knows due to the famous historical event the play is based on.
The design of the production was brilliant, especially the bright stylistic lights that moved from violent red to cool blue during dramatic scenes, and the power of these lighting choices is reflected in the production’s pictures. The combination of the simple yet versatile set and the setting in Teviot’s Debating Hall meant the dusky underbelly of New York was excellently portrayed, drawing the audience into the dark world of Caesar. However, this could not have been achieved without the amazing work of the costume department, who clearly worked extremely hard in kitting everyone out in stylish dark suits and beautiful dresses that brought the whole scene together.
Overall, Julius Caesar was a captivating watch (which is definitely a feat for a three-hour political play!), and its aesthetic was brilliantly crafted. Most of the actors held the gravitas of the New York mob whilst skilfully conveying the emotive power of Shakespeare to the audience. It was definitely a success, and I hope that the Shakespeare Company continues to be just as adventurous and ambitious with their source material as this production was with Caesar – they should be very pleased!
Image ‘DSC_9140’ by Henry-Morgan De Witt provided via Press Release