Of all Shakespeare’s plays,
Too many structural missteps left the drama unsatisfying
This version of Julius Caesar is set in the Vietnam War, relishing in an Apocalypse Now kind of vibe and pumping hits of late 60s rock ‘n roll through the scene changes. The sounds of the jungle serve as tasteful ambience, and the show overall has a confident and clear personality with this adaptation. It is, however, let down somewhat by the space. Very little set dressing and a cast of eight means that the large (for the Fringe) theatre feels a little bare. Add to that some underwhelming costumes and prop Vietnam-era weaponry and the show as a whole becomes dull to look at, undercutting the compelling wartime setup. There’s a little cognitive dissonance with accents as well – US ARMY is displayed prominently on the cast’s combat fatigues, but consistent British accents grate against this.
Performances were a little hit-or-miss, but generally strong where it’s important. Jack Read as Brutus and Saskia Douglas as Cassius in particular deserve a mention; both had clear control of the verse, and brought energy and momentum to the show when it flagged elsewhere. Read displayed gripping depth in his dilemma of killing for the good of the state, and Douglas epitomized Cassius’s ‘lean and hungry look’ in her resentment of Caesar.
Despite this, key moments of drama fell flat which caused the whole play to buckle under its own narrative arc. Exemplary of this problem is the moment of Caesar’s assassination; this is the most important sequence of the play, which draws the battle lines for the conflict that will resolve the plot. This production, however, rushed through the scene and left it feeling underwhelming to an almost bizarre degree. “Et tu Brute” was adequately melodramatic, but there was very little commitment or nuance in the assassins’ reactions, which left the following scenes feeling shallow and inconsequential. Though intensity picked up in the final third of the play, this was an issue of pacing and dramatic priority that permeated the directorial approach to the show and it was weaker for it.
Julius Caesar is a difficult play to pull off, especially in a Fringe setting. Though Imperium Theatre should be lauded for telling the story in under an hour and for some markedly good acting, too many small weaknesses undermined the play’s visual design, and too many structural missteps left the drama unsatisfying. Without nailing these two elements, it’s hard to recommend a Shakespearean classic, especially at the Fringe.