Review: Julius Caesar at the Storyhouse, Chester

Credit: Mark Carline
By Nigel Smith DIRECTOR Loveday Ingram lays her cards on the table from the ouset in her new production of Julius Caesar, which completes this Storyhouse opening season of four in-house plays. The cast of 16 are augmented by a substantial community chorus, and Ingram takes the bold choice of opening the play in the venue’s immense foyer space which links the former Odeon building with the new theatre. Thus we, as audience, find ourselves filling a large public space and witnessing a demonstration by a parade of Caesar’s supporters, their placards declaring that he will “Make Rome Great Again”. Images on the foyer’s big screen show us Caesar’s motorcade arriving outside and he is led in among a barrage of press and security, and the opening scenes of the play take place amongst us and upon the staircases leading up out of the crowd. As we are then moved swiftly to our seats we find a welcome party is there onstage to greet Caesar but so, of course, are those who see another side to his rise to power and the rest, of course, is history. There is a great deal to like about this production. The unashamed references to recent politics are not unique (earlier this month, sponsors pulled funding from a production in New York’s Central Park due to overt comparisons between Caesar and Donald Trump) but they certainly give an opening for helping audiences to engage with the work. The interval has been placed in the middle of Act III so that the second half begins with the scene in the Forum, providing another opportunity for a near riot from the community chorus who are spread around and among the audience. The horror of seeing Caesar’s corpse is thus heightened and the subsequent pleas from Brutus and Mark Antony are punctuated by angry outbursts from the crowd. Christopher Wright finds just the right balance with his Caesar – plausible enough that the masses will fall into line behind him but with a sinister edge that subtly reveals that side of his character that leads to his downfall. Christopher Staines and Richard Pepper are perfectly cast as Cassius and Brutus and both give outstanding performances, as does Natalie Grady in her delivery of Mark Anthony, which is at once restrained and impassioned. Designs are sparse (which will allow for its transfer to the open air space in a month’s time) but exceptional lighting and some sparing but effective projections make it visually appealing. There is excellent sound design, with a raging thunderstorm ramping up tensions early on, and hovering helicopters giving the sense of a community under heightened security. There is also a rumbling, atmospheric score from Tayo Akinbode, with performers drumming ominously to the side of the stage. Apart from the modern dress and the sledgehammer-subtle opening, we are thankfully not overly encouraged to make specific analogies to the present, but the story does certainly feel tremendously prescient. Most importantly, the production has a sense of a cast who have a real understanding of the text and who can deliver it with a naturalness and believability that brings the play boldly up to date. Julius Caesar plays indoors at Storyhouse to 30th July and then at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre until 27th August.