The Stage

Julius Caesar review

“Inventive interpretation”


Contemporary staging of Shakespeare that’s as striking as it is sensitive

Making his Royal Shakespeare Company debut, Atri Banerjee brings textual clarity and emotional nuance to his production of Shakespeare’s astute play on power, as well as a dash of the uncanny, care of Annabel Baldwin’s tracksuited soothsayer and a black-clad community chorus. What he doesn’t do is stage combat – there are dance sequences instead of daggers – and he eschews blood for oil. The assassination scene sees the conspirators’ hands coated in black. It covers everyone. No one is left unstained.

Banerjee attempts to marry visual elements that would look at home on the Young Vic stage with the more text-centric approach required by this RSC touring production. Designer Rosanna Vize employs the kind of big, sleek revolving box set beloved by directors such as Jamie Lloyd and Simon Stone. There’s a thrilling opening dance sequence, a digital clock counting down the seconds and a two-minute pause after Caesar is snuffed out. It’s a tricky balance to strike and, in truth, the production doesn’t always manage it, but the strength of the cast keeps things moving.

Played with gruff charm by Nigel Barrett, Caesar is an avuncular, relatively low-key figure. This might seem counter-intuitive, but then some of the most insidious political strongmen are softly spoken, immovable, clinging on to power like barnacles. Thalissa Teixeira is an emotionally lucid Brutus, while Kelly Gough makes an impressive, impassioned Cassius, their presence enriching this most male of plays. William Robinson’s Mark Antony is human wallpaper to begin with – even his top matches the backdrop – but he gradually morphs into an astute orator. Matthew Bulgo is a more than capable Casca, even when panting after being made to sprint in circles around the stage. Baldwin is a compelling presence as both the soothsayer and the embodiment of the mob.

Banerjee, who won The Stage Debut Award for best director in 2019, previously presented a radically sympathetic take on the character of Amanda Wingfield in his production of The Glass Menagerie at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Similarly, the exchanges between Cassius and Brutus have a rare warmth and ache to them here and, for all the production’s kinetic energy, it’s the quieter, more tender moments that are the most memorable – Brutus dancing with Caesar’s ghost to Caetano Veloso’s Nine Out of Ten, a heartbroken Lucius (Jamal Ajala) unable to contain his grief after being ordered to assist in Brutus’ demise.

For the most part, the production is engaging, accessible and draws out the play’s startling resonance, though it sometimes feels as if there’s a tension between the director’s desire to let rip and the demands of a touring show. But if his staging doesn’t wholly cohere, Banerjee further affirms his reputation as a sensitive, inventive interpreter of classic texts.

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