This was a cold, spare Julius Caesar.
The only set was a box, the same flat grey as the Corpus Playroom walls, and, in the opposite corner, an overhead projector. This sparseness ultimately complemented what were electrifyingly intense performances from the whole cast, led by creative directors Jamie Sayers and Gabriel Wheble as Brutus and Cassius.
Sayers and Wheble had an undeniable chemistry as the two conspirators. Wheble’s steely Cassius, simmering with anger underneath his statesmanship, made Sayers’ Brutus seem all the more honourable. This production directed all my sympathy towards Brutus and his wife Portia; the rest of Rome seemed oppressive and uninviting.
As an audience member I was genuinely intimidated by the tension in the room. It felt as if I was in the middle of the darkest political strife. The actors kept hold of this grave atmosphere until the assassination of Caesar; what began as an attempted stabbing descended into a chaotic assault on Caesar as each conspirator took their turn at violent revenge.
The decision to stage the assassination this way seemed deliberate, but messy. When the conspirators stood back from Caesar’s body, it was clear to see that each of them was realising the anarchy that would result from what they had done.
Some directorial decisions did confuse me. When Marc Antony (Saskia West) began the ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech, West was shouted down by the members of the cast who lined the walls of the stage throughout the whole play, multi-rolling and representing the citizens of Rome. Initially this made sense, but as it continued throughout her speech the cast became less of a mob than individual voices interrupting Marc Antony’s famously persuasive speech. I wish I had heard more of it, because West’s performance was otherwise moving and honest.
Lise Delamarre also deserves commendation in her role as Portia, which was full of quiet affection. Scenes between her and Sayers were believable and sensitive, especially in the play’s final scene when Brutus imagines the servant he has commanded to kill him (also played by Delamarre) to be the ghost of Portia. Most multi-rolling like this was successful, although I worried that the poignancy of this moment was lessened because Delamarre had also played the servant that helped Cassius kill himself only minutes before.
The bare walls of the set meant that the overhead projector could be used to show the audience letters written from Cassius to Brutus, as well as a large title card during the silent sequence that began the play. The production also made good use of two small lanterns in otherwise dark scenes; they could isolate Brutus in a dark space by having him lit by only one handheld light.
By keeping the stage free of set and using only the props that were necessary, this production of Julius Caesar took a gamble by leaving the audience with only Shakespeare’s words and the actors’ performances. But with performances so ubiquitously strong, I think they succeeded.