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Review: GSC’s Julius Ceasar Is Something Special

Published on: 9 Feb, 2017
Updated on: 9 Feb, 2017

Caesar (Noel White) and Calpurnia (Jessica Guise) react to the crowd’s welcome

By Alice Fowler

From the moment the hardly settled audience in Holy Trinity church is asked to produce a Mexican wave – which they did, quite successfully – you know that the Guildford Shakespeare Company are on to something special.

Their new production of Julius Caesar overflows with energy, razzmatazz and contemporary resonance, the politics of Caesar’s Rome given a modern setting in which heavies patrol the room, politicians grin and point and we, the audience, find ourselves joining the chant: ‘Caes-ar! Caes-ar!’

As so often, Shakespeare’s words seem astonishingly modern. This is drama for an era of ‘alternative facts’, in which politicians say one thing while meaning quite another.

Brutus (Johanne Murdock) explaining the need for Caesar’s demise

Noel White bestrides the stage as Caesar, honing the mannerisms of a modern politician – the fake sincerity of that smile, the repeated recognition of supporters in the crowd. In him we see both the puffed-up megalomania, and underlying vanity, which lead him to ignore the soothsayer’s famous warning to ignore the Ides of March.

Director Gemma Fairlie has brought new insight into the character of Brutus, Caesar’s adversary, by casting a female actor, Johanne Murdock, in the role. Murdock – drawing inspiration from Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel and Nicola Sturgeon, but also channelling Theresa May at times – gives a wonderful interpretation of Brutus’ nobility, conflicts and weakness.

Brutus leads her troops in a stylized battle scene

Stunning too are the crowd scenes, in which Caesar, Brutus and Mark Antony (a fine performance by Jack Wharrier) whip the volatile mob into a frenzy. This is a loud, vital, sometimes shocking production in which actors brawl, blood spurts and bright lights strobe the two stages.

While the lead actors are outstanding, so too is the company as a whole. Most take on several roles, from Caesar’s strutting political aides in the early stages to battle-weary soldiers nearer the end. GSC founder Sarah Gobran appears as a bag lady to play the soothsayer, while her co-founder Matt Pinches excels as the conspirator Cinna.

Chris Porter is convincing as Cassius, and the scenes between the brothers-in-law, Cassius and Brutus, seem particularly moving when Brutus’ words are spoken by a woman.

Facing the cost of failure

The play has two distinct halves – political drama and then action thriller, in which Octavius and Mark Antony’s forces take on Brutus and Cassius to avenge Caesar’s death.

The battle scenes, with actors clad in modern day camouflage fatigues, take on a dance-like beauty. Brutus’ soldiers twist and turn in synchrony, their numbers dwindling as the fighting turns against them. While all this is cleverly done, it is perhaps the earlier, political pugilism which is particularly enjoyable.

Again, the GSC have made excellent use of Holy Trinity church, which comes alive in a whole new way as a powerful soundtrack: ‘We could have had it all’, ‘We are the champions’ – echoes through the aisles.

But there is nothing new about saying how lucky Guildford is to have the GSC producing top quality drama on our doorstep. I say it again, and highly recommend you see this production while you can.

Julius Caesar runs until February 25th. Box Office 01483 304384, www.guildford-shakespeare-company.co.uk

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