Review - Julius Caesar (The Courtyard Theatre)

If there's one play which mirrors the world's political landscape over the last couple of years, it's Julius Caesar. It's testament to the genius of Shakespeare's longevous writing that the political tragedy has been popping up in theatres at breakneck speed as of late, with notable recent production including Angus Jackson's spears and sandals production at the RSC and Nicholas Hytner's current production at the Bridge Theatre, which brings the drama into a gritty 21st century setting. But Spada Productions' gutsy new take goes a step further than both of those iterations, and drops Brutus and co. into a grim post apocalyptic wasteland, where a need for survival drives the actions of the play's notorious conspirators. 

Matt Daniels and Mitch Howell as Brutus and Cassius in Julius Caesar
Photo credit - Gary Cooper (
Director William Vercelli's bold vision is something to marvel at. In Vercelli's baron future, a violent form of masculinity rumbles steadily on, riling up the fiendish Cassius and urging the initially rather reticent Brutus into becoming the leader of a band of assassins tasked with murdering their country's beloved leader. 

Overcome with admiration and lust, Mitch Howell's serpentine Cassius controls Matt Daniels' Brutus like a puppet on a string. Combining flattery and seduction, he manipulates the object of his desire into plotting Caesar's downfall. The duo crackle dangerously, an undercurrent of mutual bloodlust binding them together, and the scenes they share are undoubtedly the most fascinating and complex in this production. Aïsha Kent's Calpurnia is another interesting character well portrayed. Reimagined as a mystical woman, seemingly capable of channelling spirits and prophesying the future, it is she who cries out 'beware the ides of march' in the production's striking opening scene. If only her husband Caesar could match her strength of spirit. As the titular general director William Vercelli is less convincing. He portrays a Caesar who seems unsure of himself, more peevish than all-powerful. Subsequently it is difficult to see he and the forbearing Brutus as the equals the text implies they are. Nevertheless, his downfall is suitably horrific, and creates a striking image which cements Vercelli's merciless Rome as an engagingly volatile and bloody one.

The cast of Julius Caesar
Photo credit - Gary Cooper (
However, on several occasions the cruel atmosphere which dominates the production oversteps into something much more sinister. The usually loving and devoted relationship between Brutus and his stately wife Portia is contorted into a murky marriage marred by savage and intense sexual violence, which culminates in a distraught Portia initiating a graphic coat hanger self-abortion and dying as a result. Even the most affable audience members will almost certainly find Portia's ghastly treatment uncomfortable to watch. Additionally, another unendurable scene sees Brutus coaxing his young servant to touch himself while he watches on voyeuristically. Far from 'the noblest Roman of them all', the Brutus moulded by Vercelli's Julius Caesar is a reprehensible wretch. In a world dominated by barbarity, the exploration of sadistic carnality and destructive masculinity is certainly interesting, but at times it seems gratuitous; more eager to shock its unsuspecting audience than provide particularly enlightening commentary for them. 

That being said, this Julius Caesar is certainly fresh, and successfully reinvents the well trodden play as something much darker and more distressing than the title suggests. Is the mistreatment of certain female characters undue? Almost certainly. Are the attempts to shock and distress audiences miscalculated at times? Without a doubt. But this stifling production builds a convincing world, where civilisation is a thing of the past, and individuals demonstrate power in any way they can think of, be that sexual domination, mental manipulation, or basely inhumane savagery. And for that reason, some of the production's most hyper-violent moments seem just about justifiable as artistic choices. The impressive world building is bolstered by Jenn Sambridge's simple yet completely immersive production design, and Gregory Jordan's lighting design, which casts a sickly light on each brutal scene.

Slimlining the conspirators, who are usually portrayed as a fearful and calculating bunch, into a handful of ragtag incendiaries, completely alters the dynamic of the play, and so when Christopher G. Jones's brattish Octavius saunters in at the end of the play and positions himself as the first emperor of Rome, it comes as a breath of fresh air. Will the broken country be any less fragmented under his rule? Probably not, but at least he'll shake things up a bit.