Produced by Conor Gray and directed by Kate Bauer, a modern rendition of Shakespeare’s historical tragedy Julius Caesar is the latest production from theatre company The UnDisposables. Set in Rome in 44 BC, Julius Caesar follows the moral dilemma of the Roman senator Brutus (Sarah Dean) over joining the conspiracy led by Cassius (Rachel Wilkes) to murder the state’s popular leader Julius Caesar (Isobel Hughes). With the support of Casca (Georgia Andrews), Cinna (Jake Saunders), Metellus Cimber (Esther Joy MacKay) and Decimus Brutus (Rory Gradon), Cassius and Brutus succeed in their goal before they are plunged into civil war against Caesar’s right hand man Mark Antony (Room Sikdar-Rahman) and Caesar’s adopted son, Octavius (Grace Hussy-Burd).
The UnDisposables’ production aims to draw parallels between Rome’s civil unrest and the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion’s protest activities across the globe. The conspirators here are not just trying to protect the abstract values of liberty and freedom, but the planet itself. Before the play begins, the cast parade noisily around the stage holding signs about Caesar, and, reminiscent of the group’s protest in Leicester Square last December, all don fluorescent yellow hi vis jackets marked with an ‘R’ for Rome.
This is an intriguing comparison to make, but this theme is unfortunately not really explored beyond such superficial references. There is no real suggestion that the characters are concerned about a climate crisis. More props and alternative costumes – gas or face masks, dirtied clothes, near-empty water contains strewn across the stage – would certainly help to create a sense of imminent apocalypse. Rome’s descent into civil war could too be used more explicitly to reflect on the increasingly polarising nature of politics in contemporary society.
Hussy-Burd and Isobel Hughes are the standout performers. Hussy-Burd’s various roles are not major players, but she moves between them with great ease, shining best as Trebonius. Hughes has incredible gravitas as Caesar and commands the stage whenever she is present. It is a great shame that she is not a character in the second half of the performance. Wilkes, Dean and Andrews deliver their huge quantity of lines confidently with few mistakes or hesitations. There is also some fantastic choreography that all the cast execute well such as a perfectly in sync fighting sequence that serves to break up the narrative performance and provide some respite from the long speeches.
The audience are seated surrounding the stage, and space between and behind their chairs allow the cast to weave amongst them. The stage itself is largely bare, except for a few chairs that intermittently populate the space. A balcony overlooks the main stage space which is used in the latter half of the performance for more dramatic scenes. This space could certainly be used earlier, especially in helping to establish Caesar’s power and hold over the populace. Protest signs – many with humorous slogans reminiscent of those which have gone viral on social media – decorate the theatre walls.
Ominous music and sound effects (Tom Triggs) play throughout the first half of the play as the action creeps towards Caesar’s assassination. A particularly effective moment is the loud, echoey voice that delivers Calphurnia’s premonition of Caesar’s death. The lighting (James Ireland) does not vary too much other than to denote day and night, and there are few props apart from some potato peelers as rather distracting substitutes for knives and the colourful signage.
The UnDisposables’ Julius Caesar is an ambitious and slick production and succeeds best in its acting and sound design, but more focus on drawing out their contemporary environmental themes will elevate this production to a new level.
“well rounded performances under competent direction”
Presented as a “work-in-progress”, playwright Lucinda Borrell, together with director Therese Ramstedt and actors Karina Cornwell (Lizzy) and Kara Stanley (Beth) have courageously invited audiences to view Us Two after approximately twenty hours of rehearsal. It is usually a dramaturg, and not a critic, who watches and takes notes for the company at this point, and these notes are not generally shared with the public. But I’ll try to wear both hats for this review, in the hope that these observations will be helpful to the company, while also of use to the audience.
Us Two is a timely script about the perils of friendship between women during the #metoo era. Borrell has created a situation in which two old friends find themselves on opposite sides when Lizzy, a journalist, exposes Beth’s husband Charlie as a longstanding sexual predator. As a result of Lizzy’s articles, Charlie has been jailed for rape, and fired from his job. Because he is a public figure, media interest has spilled over onto Beth and her children. Deep in denial about her husband’s offences, Beth invites Lizzy for lunch. Lizzy accepts, hoping that she can present evidence that will force Beth to come to terms with her husband’s wrongdoing. It’s a compelling dilemma, with echoes of the Harvey Weinstein story. Borrell, a journalist herself, creates believable characters in Lizzy and Beth.
That’s the plot. But the actual playing out starts as a very leisurely fight between two women about—what? We know that Beth and Lizzy have reached a breaking point in their relationship, but we do not understand exactly why for some time. Instead the women rehash moments in a shared history until it becomes clear that while Beth settled down with Charlie (in an idyllic marriage, she says), Lizzy has continued her freewheeling single ways. The confrontations between the friends in a restaurant are punctuated with voiceovers, or monologues at a microphone under a spotlight, in which both characters fill in some of the missing information. Is Beth really as unaware of Charlie’s predatory ways as she claims? And what of Lizzy’s own experiences of sexual harrassment (or worse) that she isn’t telling Beth? Is she really as objective about Charlie’s crimes as she claims? The drama comes to a head when Lizzy finds that Beth has been recording their conversation in hopes of gaining material that can be used in Charlie’s upcoming appeal against his sentence.
This is such rich material, that ambiguity in setting up the plot, and skirting around the actual crimes that have been committed, run the risk of trivializing the stakes for these two former friends. It’s understandable that Beth would want to protect her family—particularly her children—but there’s scarcely room in an hour to explore all the complexities of her denial. The character risks seeming unsympathetic to appalling crimes. And without revealing the actual details of Charlie’s chief offences until late in the play, we wonder why Lizzy thinks it important enough to meet with Beth in the first place. More importantly, the audience needs more time to understand Charlie, and how men like him operate. He’s a significant character, even though he never appears on stage.
In many ways, the play that was performed last night is already a complete production. Us Two at The Space has a set, lighting, sound—and two actors in costume, off book, giving well rounded performances under competent direction. That’s an impressive achievement for so little time in the rehearsal room. The audience was invited to give written feedback at the end of the show, but perhaps a better idea might have been to have a question and answer session afterwards with the team. This is also something that a skilled dramaturg could facilitate. I am sure audiences would welcome the opportunity to discuss such cutting edge material.