Julius Caesar

Production: Julius Caesar
Director: Mark Smith
Venue: 41 Monkgate
Date: Wednesday, 10th June 2009
Rating: ***

Mark Smith is undoubtedly the most Quixotic talent Dramasoc has at its disposal. Over the course of the last year or so, he has directed in the Drama Barn (a hip, nip & slick double-bill, featuring Mark Ravenhill’s Pool (No Water) and Hannah Davies’ Hot Stuff) and often acted at the same venue; he has also directed members of the National Youth Theatre (for Mayoral appointment at YO1’s Guildhall), and produced for our own Simon Maeder at 41 Monkgate. This week he was plying his trade under yet another banner, that of the York Shakespeare Project. This is an ad hoc company of local players whose aim, according to society secretary Raymond Baggaley, is to “perform every one of Shakespeare’s plays in York over the twenty year period from 2001…in broad chronological order”.

This revival of Shakespeare’s classical drama proved Smith’s grandest challenge to date. The problem of Julius Caesar, for this writer at least, is one of accessibility. Modern audiences, for example, flock to pay lip service to Hamlet’s poetical utopianism, and delight at Macbeth’s bloodthirsty excesses. A tale of political intrigue and clipped rhetoric, very much of its time even in the Bard’s day, is a harder angle to pitch: could he pin it down, whilst leaving enough room inside to give sufficient breath to utter a remotely resonant ‘Et tu’? I can answer unquestionably in the affirmative. The YSP, a registered charity noted for its good works, has done its altruistic credentials proud with a cogent staging. There are great questions posed by the text: why does Brutus, the noblest of Romans, deign to commit regicide? How does Caesar, bumped-off by halfway, retain such a telling influence in death? I shan’t elaborate (for further reference: Plutarch, or indeed, Shakespeare) but can confirm that these were engaged with in an honest, unfussy manner, and half-formed answers were coherently dramatised. This was not a perfect Julius Caesar (the idea of a ‘perfect’ Shakespeare is laughable) but a ‘warts and all’ production utterly unconcerned with its amateurish shortcomings. Some things were done well, other fumblingly, but the overall tenor was one of success wrought by a work ethic and en masse commitment that would shame many a professional practitioner.

41 Monkgate, an underused and underrated diamond-in-the-rough of York ’s theatrical spaces, was the perfect setting for a production that could have been sub-titled ‘Something is Rotten in the State of Rome’. Its damp-running walls, the heavy drapes that girdled the stage around and a pervading darkness almost tumescent in the air, all contributed to the peculiarly striking mis-en-scène. Smith notes in his programme that his desire was to “create an atmosphere of tension and terror which is Roman and Shakespearian, as well as stripped down and modern”. This was partly realised by a back-drop of strange, obliquely denotative set-pieces (rather like the confused planes in a Cubist Braque or Picasso) that could be wheeled this way and that by the crowding ensemble, to help figure a street scene, the court of Caesar or, later, the battleground at Philippi. During the tumultuous storm especially (the dreaded ‘Ides of March’ were given body and form by vivid projections) these expressly articulated the classical/modernist sleight of hand. Bernard Shaw had a point in saying that Shakespeare’s play serves mainly to show how far (not very) we have progressed since Caesar fell unjustly, and Smith visualised the conundrum well: were these the sun-bleached, rain-kissed travertine stones of the Ancients, or the reinforced concrete of some new Rome , as envisaged by Le Corbusier or Walter Gropius?

The actors were toga-d, though, and many of them played very handsomely. Maurice Crichton was an imposing stage presence as the compromised gallant, Marcus Brutus. His performance was emblematic of a strong, silent type, all of whose intellectual gifts and solid stoicism are ultimately grist in a mill compared with his fatal lack of insouciance. Dermot Hill was a convincing picture of high dudgeon as the calculating Cassius and Jenny Carr a forceful Portia. The standout turn was, perhaps fittingly given the character’s increasing importance to performers and critics alike, Robin Sanger as Caesar. Kingly, avuncular and tragically waning, the portrayal at times belied this talented actor’s status as a greenhorn, and therefore reflected the evening’s work as a whole. Well done, all round.

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