Review: Julius Caesar, Barbican

Directed by Angus Jackson, Julius Caesar is the first of four productions presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of their Rome Season. Written by William Shakespeare, the tragedy is believed to have been conceived in 1599 and is one of several plays by the playwright that focuses on true events in Roman history. Transferred from their home in Stratford-Upon-Avon, the RSC’s ‘Rome MMXVII’ settles at the Barbican where Anthony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus are set to follow in Caesar’s shadow.

A temple of white marble towers over the first act. Pearly and bright, a likeness of a lion and its prey are frozen, a horse statuary in the jaws of its predator. The animals fall to the ground, giving a fleshy form to the carnal ambitions of the conspirators against Caesar – men of Pompey who fear for the future of their state. Designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, the set is traditional and well constructed. Red and white classical dress is in keeping with this, separating the dawn of the hungry politicians and their transformation into soldiers of desperation. Flashes of lightning are met with claps of thunder as the plot to kill Caesar is set in motion, for a moment creating a healthy sense of unease. This however, wanes almost immediately and despite the efforts of the cast, never seems to resurface.

In spite of its impressive architecture, the stage seems to lack any centre of gravity. The ensemble frequently appear detached from the narrative and each other, tending to fall into long periods of stillness. In doing so, the story is slowly drained of its pace, relinquishing all manner of tension that surrounds the movements of the principal characters. Martin Hutson’s Cassius was essential in propelling the story forward, his light-footed and dynamic characterisation serving to anchor any scene in which he was present. Casca (played by Tom McCall) too is engaging, his sarcastic manner consistently striking the underlying humour within the script. In comparison, Brutus (played by Alex Waldmann) is much weaker. His spirit is outdone by his beloved wife Portia (Hannah Morrish), whose strong presence and ability to deliver the Bard is sorely missed in the second act.

As the production crawls towards its conclusion, all sense of risk is completely lost. The marble sanctuary disappears, leaving a mighty curved screen in its wake. Togas are exchanged for military uniform as the battle for leadership begins, surrounded by a deep red aura and a cataclysmic sunset in an attempt to intensify the bloodbath. Unfortunately, any bloody effects are noticeably false and only detract further from the conflict that ensues onstage.

The RSC’s adaptation of Julius Caesar is disappointing. The standard expected from the company is particularly high given their status and it is shame that they are not able to deliver on this occasion. One can only hope that the remainder of the Rome Season will show more promise. If not, it will be most unsatisfying.

Julius Caesar is playing at the Barbican until 20 January 2017

Photo: Helen Maybanks