It is one of Shakespeare’s most quotable plays so it never fails to disappoint me that Julius Caesar isn’t a bit, well, better. In the simplest terms not much happens in this play. Either side of that massive, central crowd-pleaser – the stabbing! The ‘Et tu, Brute?’! – there really isn’t a lot to recommend this depiction of the most powerful man in the world’s downfall and his post-mortem revenge. There are lots of incredible speeches but not a great deal of action, meaning it appeals more to the scholars than to the standard Globe punter.
Dominic Dromgoole’s new production makes the best it possibly can out of this mixed bunch. It plays on the carnival atmosphere evoked at the start of the play for the Feast of Lupercal with a very funny puppet show by the Groundlings’ Entrance before the show and, once it begins, a lot of raucous shouting and an animal carcass swinging down from above the stage. It’s fun and, as usual at the Globe, everyone gets into the spirit of things.
It’s almost a shame, then, when proceedings take a sobering turn once the play gets into full, oratorical swing. If this Julius Caesar starts with a party then the middle section (particularly post-stabbing) is a very dirty hangover. Thankfully the production gets a second wind towards the end with some brilliantly choreographed battle scenes and exquisite speeches. What it loses in entertainment value it gains by the bucket-load in clarity: the entire cast deliver their lines perfectly throughout, making a play that can be tricky to follow completely digestible for the audience. Stand-out performances come from exactly where you would expect them to: Tom McKay as tortured Brutus, Luke Thompson as a particularly impassioned Mark Antony and, of course, George Irving as Caesar himself. But there are some surprising highlights from the rest of the cast too, particularly Katy Stephens as Calphumia and Chistopher Logan’s brilliant Cassius.
Another strength of the production is its design. The costume is kept simple and Elizabethan with the odd nod to Rome here and there but the set is a real gem. Rome wasn’t built in a day but the Senate, complete with marble pillars and stone monuments, is constructed on stage before the eyes of the audience and it’s exactly the kind of spot-on subtlety you can expect from this theatre.
Julius Caesar is always a hit and miss play for me but this is a faithful production of a text we all half-know and fun enough for a summer’s evening.