Theatre Review: Julius Caesar @ Bristol Old Vic
by Polly Hember
'We at the height are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.'
Brutus’ words, about a country divided and wreaked with political turbulence, indecision, conflict and uncertainty, couldn’t be more relevant to our current day polemic. He speaks about the fickle or transient nature of society, the ‘voyage of life’, which ploughs on through a vast sea full of different currents and riptides that could indeed carry us in any direction. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, then, is a perfect choice for the Bristol Old Vic and its renowned theatre school to take on.
With brilliant staging and phenomenal performances from experienced actors and talented students alike, this production was highly gripping, incredibly engaging and tactfully highlighted the problems with power, democracy and ‘the affairs of men’.
Set in modern Rome, Simon Dormandy handles the play with a nuanced and bold fashion. Caesar and his flanks are dressed in smart suits, and come out waving to the masses, various Caesar fanatics, waving Italian flags, dressed in trackies and football shirts, are running through the audience, shouting their adoration and devotion. The result was a stage that engulfed the audience, with voices bursting from all around, filling the Old Vic. The audience now feels like they are involved, part of the masses or conspirators that will be equally affected by the upheaval, as Caesar, Brutus and Mark Antony address the public. In doing this, Dormandy focuses on the powers of rhetoric and persuasion. Mark Antony addresses the audience and all the supernumeraries scattered throughout in his funeral speech. Ross O’Donnellan handles this superbly in one of the best performances of the show, deftly handling the balance between a simple, honest, blunt Mark Antony and a crafty manipulator of the people. How quickly do the affections of the crowd shift from hailing Caesar, to unabashed support for Brutus, to being rallied into bloody, violent revolt and carnage.
A minimal set was cleverly utilised to signify structure and stability in the early acts, and then blown open in the second half, covered in spray paint and graffiti reading “mutiny”, resembling a modern day battlefield, with Brutus in military camouflage, bullet vest and sporting huge guns and the gender-reversed dictator-like Octavia (Rosy McEwen) in a grey, imperial jumpsuit whose callousness and coolness in the face of violence was truly chilling.
Showcasing phenomenal performances from the graduating students from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, where all roles apart from Caesar, his wife Calpurnia and the old Soothsayer were handled expertly by the students. Freddie Bowerman was fantastic; he delivered a strong and considerate Brutus whose integrity shone through, delving into the conflict he feels when pushed to murder and betray his leader, maintaining honour and veracity in the face of war. Edward Stone was a fantastic Cassius, delivering an emotive and tender performance. Caesar himself was played tremendously by the Game of Thrones and Star Wars actor Julian Glover who was a steely and mighty Caesar, just distant enough to hint at the dark and ambiguous “ambition” that prompted Cassius and Brutus to turn on him.
With fantastic staging and brilliant performances from students and old masters alike, this production was truly stirring; demonstrating how violence only breeds more violence and how tragically democracy is devoured and defeated by such actions.
At Bristol Old Vic until 1 July.
Check out our gallery for production photographs!
When 9th June - 1st July
Where Bristol Old Vic
Time 7pm, 1.30pm Saturday Matinees
Price £33.50 - £7.50
Image Credit Simon Purse