A Julius Caesar full of cowardice, vanity and rent-a-cause politics – anyone we know?


This modern-dress production has a fine cast but needs more political momentum

An everyman despot: Caesar (Dickon Tyrrell) Credit: Helen Murray

Donald Trump’s presidency was a gift to directors staging Julius Caesar – both Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed 2018 revival at the Bridge and Public Theatre’s controversial 2017 staging in New York thrived on the parallels between Caesar’s tyrannical populism and the shameless demagoguery of the Donald.

It’s tempting to argue that Trump’s currently – if possibly temporarily – diminished presence not only makes politics less entertaining but robs modern revivals of Julius Caesar of an especially galvanising touchstone. Yet the culture clash between the reactionary right and the moral certainties of the left crippling much of political debate right now arguably makes for an even richer context for Shakespeare’s cautionary tale, which, of course, warns not so much against the dangers of authoritarianism but against uncompromising conviction of any persuasion.

Certainly Diane Page’s spare modern-dress production at Shakespeare’s Globe (also touring nationwide as part of Globe on Tour) seems uninterested in modern political bogeymen, although, that said, there’s more than a shade of Putin about Dickon Tyrrell’s enfeebled paranoid military strongman Caesar as he stumbles up the steps to the forum and makes a servant test his wine. Yet he’s an everyman despot too, exposing the blend of cowardice and vanity behind every autocrat as he dismisses the advice of his wife for the flattering encouragement of Decius ahead of his doomed trip to the senate. Some productions play on the ambiguity of Caesar’s aspirations; as this one flounces about in his dressing gown shouting, there’s not much doubt here.

Page’s main invention, though, is to make both Cassius and Brutus women. There have been female Cassiuses before but Charlotte Bate’s impassioned feminist conspirator both breathes fresh life into lines such as “Help me Cassius, or I sink” as she mocks Caesar’s struggle to swim across the Tiber, and reinforces the entitlement of his gender as Caesar manoeuvres himself into power. There’s intriguing hints of feminist solidarity in her relationship with Anna Crichlow’s gleamingly virtuous Brutus whose faith in her own righteousness remains eerily implacable throughout. There’s a nicely ambiguous performance from Samuel Oatley, too, as the estuary accented Mark Antony who in his honourable man speech makes great persuasive play of himself as a man of the people rather than a member of the morally posturing elite.

Gleamingly virtuous: Anna Crichlow as Brutus (right) with Jack Myers Credit: Helen Murray

Yet Julius Caesar is most effective when played straight through as a political thriller – I’ve yet to see a production in which an interval doesn’t leech the messy second half of forwards momentum, and Page’s production loses its grip on its own thesis after the break. Granted the splintering of purpose between Cassius and Brutus becomes a bit of a cat fight, yet you wish the lofty Brutus would shed her halo and embark on a bit of self-interrogation. And while Page gives plenty of room to the play’s use of rhetoric there is something dutiful about her approach – one yearns for a bit more verve and excitement. There are other duff notes, too: the death of Caesar is played for laughs; it ought to prompt horror.

There’s fine work from a nimble supporting cast – Cash Holland is mesmeric as a furious anguished Portia berating her wife Brutus, while Amie Francis makes much of the guileless poet Cinna who by dint of name alone is confused for a conspirator by the mob and hacked to death. Best of all is Omar Bynon who across minor multiple roles establishes the chemistry with the audience that all Globe productions depend upon, not least as the cobbler in the opening scene as he whips up the audience to shout “Pompey is pants”, even though the play makes only obscure reference to Pompey and to Caesar’s recent victory over him. In short this moment arguably best exemplifies the dangers of rent-a-cause politics’ mass appeal, so much so one almost wonders if this production should be named after the cobbler instead. 

At the Globe until Sep 10, and also simultaneously touring nationwide until Sept. Tickets and tour details: 020 7902 1400;