Plays are performed in places, and the effect that seemingly obvious fact can have on the play can sometimes be palpable. In the case of Cosmic Arts’s strong, new performance of Shakespeare’s Caesar, place seems to have an extremely high level of prominence. The site of the play’s performance, the Keble O’Reilly Theatre, is located in the red-brick semi-secular cathedral that is Keble College, and contrasts sharply with its surrounding opulence. Instead of the always anachronistic Victorian Gothic of the college’s entrance, the Keble O’Reilly Theatre, the newest of the Oxford student theatres, combines the red-brick with plate-glass, grey slate and polished wood to make a modern space that is heightened by the wall mounted statues of the neighbouring quadrangles. This is perhaps fitting for a play taking a Shakespearian tragedy set about 1650 years before it was written, and now, under Benjamin Ashton’s direction, placing the tale and the text of Julius Caesar’s assassination and its aftermath in a modern day United States of America, a nation that did not exist in William Shakespeare’s day.
Indeed, the play makes its own place entirely clear. At the dress rehearsal I watched, the play had no fewer than five American flags on stage at all time, with one scene bringing the total up to seven, alongside a Presidential flag. Whilst this might come across as overt with weaker direction, the relative sparseness of the rest of the stage, alongside a four-person strong band hidden offstage playing music directed by Darius Latham-Koenig, allows these flags to not just achieve a level of prominence, but also a level of symbolic absurdity. As the first act draws to a close, and Shakespeare’s scenes are interrupted by a cacophony of mob noise and music where only the occasional profanity and Jimi Hendrix-style electronic guitar riff on recognisable big band tunes are distinguishable, the intensity and theatricality of the play threaten to overwhelm it, showing both how the cast and crew are able to fit Shakespeare’s play to their stage, and Shakespeare’s play’s own ability to transcend the specific.
Indeed, as Ashton made clear in a conversation before the play, everyone is aware of the political connotations of the play, and with Jennifer Hurd’s American Caesar wearing a trouser or pant suit, the most easily graspable analogue is that of the winner of the popular vote, and final loser, in the 2016 US General Election, Hillary Clinton. Viewed through this lens, the play actually becomes an interesting, and surprisingly sympathetic, look at various machinations of politicians and law enforcement to keep the seemingly power-hungry Clinton in check, only to discover that their actions lead to a situation worse for all involved. However, as Ashton mentioned, the goal of this play was to create a dialogue, as the combination of the original text, combined with a changed genders and settings allows each individual audience member to engage in a ‘Socratic’ debate with themselves and each other about what the play implies, and that is probably wise; Shakespeare’s play was written in an era of absolute monarchy and looking to it for answers instead of questions would have led to some pessimistic conclusions about the state of democracy.
This is not to imply that the play is solely viewable as a political mediation. Part of the charm of the production is its enjoyability as a traditional Shakespeare play. Joining Hurd, her performance as the titular Caesar, and her complimentary role as future Caesar, Octavius, include Jonny Wiles playing a surprisingly noble and restrained Brutus; Tom Ames as a morally ambiguous and manipulative but ultimately understandable Mark Anthony; Benedict Turvill playing a string-tie wearing Decius with a broad accent that whilst first strange allows for his more duplicitous turns to become amusingly different; and Amelia Gabriel as Cassius, finding nuances in her performance that would imply that the role had always been written with a woman in mind if it weren’t for history saying otherwise. Across the cast the Shakespearian text was delivered clearly and understandably, or, at least, for this English undergraduate’s ear. Staging was also well developed, with key moments, such as Caesar’s death and the following unrest using the Keble O’Reilly’s unusual design of a strip of stage well, showing dynamic movement, emotional lighting and
This is not to say that the production is not without any flaws. Occasionally the balance of sound effects, music and dialogue and undone and the dialogue overwhelmed. Alongside that, occasionally the genders of various minor characters could feel unclear, as could always grasping the doubling of every one of the 7 actors with multiple roles. However, these flaws did not detract from the overall enjoyment of the night, or my interest in the play’s design.
To bring this review full-circle, although Shakespeare’s text is retained, if edited, the use of that most deliberately provocative and anachronistic setting in a different anachronistic place seems to help develop the right atmosphere for a play that is in itself anachronistic, with its famous Roman clocks, yet always interesting and slyly relevant about modern democracy, and all its shortcomings.
Shakespeare’s Caesar is being performed at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre from October 11th to October 14th. Tickets cost £10, with £8 concessions.