Julius Caesar, Bristol Old Vic

SHAKESPEARE’S Julius Caesar, in the news recently for a New York production depicting President Donald Trump as the model for the title role, comes to Bristol Old Vic, with three seasoned actors leading a cast of beginners from the graduating class of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

The collaboration, directed by Simon Dormandy, is played on a stark and brutalist set designed by Sarah Mercade, and runs until 1st July.

The timelessness of the play is underlined by the updating of the action to the present day, and the auditorium is often peopled by shouting, hysterical crowds, quickly swayed by the rhetoric of their leaders.

Julian Glover’s patrician Julius Caesar may, or may not, be working against the very core of the Roman republic. Does he want a crown, or is he genuine in refusing it from his acolyte, Mark Anthony?

We don’t have time to find out, as the noble and conflicted Brutus, fearing for the “free” people of the Roman world, joins with Cassius and his co-conspirators to take the ruler down. He trusts that the virtuous intent of the conspiracy will convince the people to support their actions. The rest of the play shows how Antony turns the crowd back to praising the dead Caesar, defeating the murderers in battle.

In these febrile political days, it’s impossible to cast these old stories of honour and revenge aside. It’s just too easy to see how our polarised and self-obsessed societies could be manipulated and radicalised …. it’s not just a word to link to Islam.

The powerful production depends largely on the energy and passion of the young actors. Glover’s Caesar makes a few ghostly appearances, but Lyn Farleigh’s Calpurnia and John Hartoch’s Soothsayer are on and off stage almost before the action starts.

Freddie Bowerman’s intense and honest Brutus is served by Alice Kerrigan’s poignant page Lucia, who also contributes a memorable Cinna the Poet, (yes, many of the traditionally male roles are played by women). Edward Stone is an impassioned Cassius, and Rosy McEwen suitably cold and emotionless as Octavia. Harley Viveash is a memorable Trebonius, and Sarah Livingstone the broken Portia.

Ross O’Donnellan’s Mark Antony will probably divide audience opinion. His harsh Northern Irish tones challenge rather than cajole the Romans to reverse their support of Brutus. As the war progressed his words became less and less decipherable. I guess it depends on whether you see Mark Anthony as a charismatic and inspirational leader or a bully boy with the gift of the gab.

The use of the auditorium effectively brings every member of the audience into the action, and all the more chilling it is for that.

Photographs by Simon Purse

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