Shakespeare’s historical tragedy about power, betrayal and Roman democracy is given a contemporary, politically relevant interpretation. This Groundling Theatre Company/Crow’s Theatre production of Julius Caesar is both epic and fiercely on point.
With Zack Russell‘s framing device of a news podcast, the play opens with some political backstory delivered as rapid-fire, sensationalistic banter. This sets up our first scene of Caesar’s (Jim Mezon) victorious return to Rome. Following a victory over his rival Pompey, the crowd adores this man of the people, but a few of his closest colleagues worry his “ambition” will lead them into tyranny.
Stirred to action by Cassius (Moya O’Connell), Brutus (Dion Johnstone) joins the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar and, ultimately, becomes the public face of the act. Caesar’s dear friend Marc Antony (Graham Abbey), in his iconic address to “Friends, Romans, countryman,” riles the crowd up against the conspirators and launches a civil war.
Director Chris Abraham’s intensely atmospheric production is staged in the round, with simple design elements that are striking and immersive. Ming Wong’s business-chic trench coats are a dreary yet stylish blanket of grey shrouding sinister intentions. Lorenzo Savoini’s florescent light bars flicker ominously over the drama and elicit a bleak, industrial chill.
A thick haze hovers over all, obscuring whatever intentions each face might otherwise reveal, and lending an eerie vastness to the outside edges of the space. This is a world where people are constantly under threat from angry crowds, portentous storms and furtive schemes. Thomas Ryder Payne’s nuanced and vibrant sound design pulls us even further into this dangerous place with his intricate soundscape. These evocative elements culminate in some astonishing sequences of menacing weather and violent conflict.
And this robust cast of prominent thespians is a fine treat. They’ve mined the text for it’s many heady emotional treasures and convey them all with sufficient force to leave you breathless. I was captivated by Abbey’s fierce, aching lament over Caesar’s body. And I was particularly drawn to Johnstone and O’Connell’s fraught dynamic. So fascinated was I by their intimate and volatile alliance that it had, for me, enough gravitas to be an emotional core from which the rest of the drama pivots.
Russell’s additional material includes a final epilogue which delivers the parallels we are meant to draw to our current politics. This coda, written and performed admirably, is certainly compelling, but it does suggest that the creators don’t quite trust the source material—or their interpretation of its text—to make their point clear enough.
But it isn’t worth dwelling too much on that. The production is, beyond a doubt, bold and deeply stirring. Don’t miss it!