Performance Review: Exeter Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar

Sweeping me in from cobbled streets in an area of Exeter that I’d never set foot before, The Hall was the perfect venue in which to be hurtled along with the tide of political thrill and plotting. Exeter Shakespeare Company’s performance of Julius Caesar hit the mark in making this timeless play relevant and new.

Julius Caesar is a Shakespearean classic: conspiracy, drama, and of course the ghost of the man you just murdered (powerfully executed by Matt Page as Caesar). It tells the famous story of Julius Caesar’s murder by conspirators who feared that he was becoming too powerful. As with all Shakespearian plays, traitors against the crown must meet a bloody end. Director Hannah North’s adaptation saw this story of power and betrayal played out in the modern day House of Commons, signified by the blue and red lights – with female leads and queer relationships.

So what about this production set it apart? Women. In. Suits. In all seriousness, the strength of the female leads, especially Ellie Honeyball as Brutus, was refreshing. I was in awe of Honeyball’s performance; every moment and every muscle portraying resolve, patience or frustration as required. Having only skim-read the first act before attending, I found my understanding completely elevated by the evocative precision of the actors. There were so many stellar performances – Caspar Jansa as an enraged Cicero, Alfie White as an arrogant Octavius, Alex Green as a diplomatic Mark Anthony and Odette Abassi as a sarcastic Casca – it’s impossible to include them all.

Image Source: Exeter Shakespeare Company

The play opened with the plotting of Cassius, whose hard determination and adoration for Brutus underpin the narrative. Charlie Hollingworth’s (she/her) bitter and desperate evocations were wonderful and perfectly fit Cassius’ tragic death. Cassius and Brutus’ love, which from the beginning hinted at being something greater than friendship, was a crowning jewel of this production. Alongside the growing political tension, the lingering, tender grasps created a wholly different type of tension. Before I was sure that this was a queer romance, the performance subverted ideas of masculinity and friendship. Casting these two as women was an incredible move. 

Despite the venue, with its charming location and brick walls, transporting the audience back to Ancient Rome, the performance itself was updated and new. Organising the audience on either side of the stage, facing one another, was a genius move. As soon as the cast swept in, reporters clamouring for Caesar’s attention, I felt like a spectator at the House of Commons. The battle scene, effortlessly choreographed, ebbed and pounded like a dance, perfectly evoking the hostility and speed of rush hour in a tube station. 

A feature that has been replaying in my head since watching the performance is the manipulation of volume which was used to play with the audience, lulling us into calm with a quiet soliloquy before decimating that calm with deafening scenes of uproar. That, and the haunting figure of Caesar’s ghost, leering up at Mark Anthony. In this way, Caesar’s confident and dictatorial power lingered on. The red roses adorning the cast’s suits, an excellent costume decision, became the blood staining Caesar’s body. 

The best (or perhaps worst) thing about the performance? The clamorous shouting felt more at home in the House of Commons than on the Roman streets. Perhaps that’s where the greatest crimes are committed…

Watch the performance for yourself on the 24th and 25th May, 7pm at The Hall, Exeter.

Eirwen Abberley Watton

Featured Image Source: Photograph from Exeter Shakespeare Company

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