From the outset, Immersion Theatre’s gritty production of Julius Caesar clearly wants to do something original. The opening replaces the original dialogue with a montage of horrific violent acts supported by a deafening Led Zeppelin inspired soundtrack, showing how lawless this "bohemian dystopia" (as it was advertised) really is.
Indeed the visuals and the spectacle make this production at the Brockley Jack in south London excellent. The characters are dressed in grungy leather, and props are limited to metal bins and chains, helping shift the play away from Rome circa 44BC and allowing more connection to today. Many of the themes are still acutely relevant, such as the rule of the mob, political types manipulating each other and the everyone-out-for-himself attitude. The visuals are supported by well choreographed dancing and military training scenes, supervised by Jess Mack, which are intelligently placed into the production. Other set pieces such as wheeling out Caesar’s corpse in a shopping cart and seeing the soothsayer violently murdered on the streets by a gang help create a lawless atmosphere.
The theatre’s ambience and atmosphere are fully exploited. In keeping with Rachel Cartlidge’s grungy, leather costumes the lighting is mostly dark, creating heavy shadows and keeping much of the space in almost pitch black. There is a danger it could be too dark in places, but the design by Viktor Palfi keeps the balance just right.
In a notable move, co-directors James Clifford and Rod Morgan cast Caesar and Cassius as women. For Caesar (Anna Bond) this interesting take does not have much impact as Caesar features sparingly in the play, but for Cassius it allows the co-directors to change completely the dynamic between her and the male co-conspirators. Cassius, brilliantly played by Rochelle Parry, is portrayed as a jealous sister type who sexually manipulates Brutus (Liam Mulvey) into following her plans. Her femininity adds an extra layer of complexity into her relationship with the animal-like Casca (Frank Teale) and Brutus, seducing them into following her will.
The play is cut down and runs in two halves, with the first half building up to the inevitable and famous assassination and the second half focusing on the consequences. The editing works well as it cuts down the peripheral characters and dialogue and presents the fast-paced action and conspiracy scenes. Both parts have their own unique atmosphere: the first is intimate and tense, and the second aggressive and energetic. The assassination is especially compelling. As the conspirators lay into Caesar they abuse and torture her with the audience only snatching glimpses due to the strobe lights and “Killing in the Name Of” blaring at 100 decibels. You could just about see the performers running around the stage until the spotlight fell on the dying Caesar waiting for the final stab from her friend. It is a sensory overload and an apt ending to a tense first half.
The second half focuses on the famous revenge by Marc Anthony. As the first half led up to the senate house on the Ides of March, the second leads to the climactic battle of Phillipi. James Clifford’s portrayal of Marc Anthony is convincing, and he takes the audience on his journey from anger to grief to a desire for revenge. Mulvey stands out as well in the funeral oration, in which he conveys his conflict and despair. The battle scene generally is well crafted and sees all the players brawling hand to hand, moving in and out of slow motion. The key piece of direction comes as the ghost of Caesar walks through the battle to plunge the sword into Brutus.
There are times when the production frustrates because of an element of confusion. With everyone looking the same it is hard to distinguish who is on whose side, especially at the battle of Phillipi where it is hard to determine who is winning. The dark set is sometimes too sparse and clean, so some dumpsters or dirt could have made the point come across better.
As a text, Julius Caesar can work in many contexts, and this near future Blade Runner style production demonstrates how relevant the play can be, delivering a real sensory treat.