Rome 3000 – Julius Caesar (Review)

Rome 3000 – Julius Caesar (Review)

ONSTAGE

So, this time last week I’d never been to any live “gig theatre”, though had seen a few examples online; now I’ve been to two in the space of four days and both in intimate spaces. And they don’t come much more intimate than the Canal Café Theatre right next to the picturesque stretch of the Regent’s Canal with its eclectic collection of houseboats. It was another warm evening and for reasons I’ll come to momentarily that wasn’t the only reason I was going to potentially feel uncomfortable.

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I was there to see Rome 3000 – a retelling/reshaping of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by young theatre group Shed. It’s playing as part of August’s Camden Fringe Festival and after its residency in Little Venice moves to the Cockpit. I have to say that Julius Caesar has never been a favourite of mine and I think there’s probably a very particular reason for that..…. (Short digression coming up which you have full permission to skip if you’re short of time and don’t want to hear about my childhood)
When I first went to secondary school the Prefects were allowed to administer a punishment to the junior pupils in the form of a written imposition known as “A Plotter Speaks”. This was a piece from Act I, Scene 3 of Julius Caesar beginning: “You are dull, Casca, and those sparks of life/That should be in a Roman you do want”. It’s 22 lines long and the punishment was to write it out in full as many times (up to five copies) as the Prefect deemed fit against a somewhat arbitrary sliding scale of so called offences. Clearly in the days before computers, word processors and photo copiers this was tedious to say the least. One missing punctuation mark and the piece would be ripped up and it would have to be done again. Although some of my fellow students did a nice line in selling pre-written copies of the speech to miscreants, I’m sure for many others it left them with an unfortunate hatred of Shakespeare’s work. Not true in my case but it did leave me with a less than appreciative view of this particular play. And now back to the main plot…

Fortunately, I avoided the triggering moment; Shed have done a fine job of filleting out the script and reducing it to the essentials which meant the offending speech had disappeared into the ether alongside quite a bit else – it’s a particular shame that the sequence in which Cinna The Poet is set upon by the mob has bitten the dust. But this production isn’t all about what has been removed; there are some interesting additions too. One of the actors plays an electric cello, another a guitar and songs, including an original (“Ode To Caesar”), are integrated into proceedings. Although a purist might baulk, this is entirely in line with “gig theatre” principles as is the inclusion of some rather esoteric movement sequences which are repeated as the audience take their seats.

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I felt particularly sympathetic towards the two performers carrying out this recurring routine in their rubberised masks; the heat must have been almost unbearable, especially as they continued wearing them for much of what followed. I know one has to suffer for one’s art …but really? In case you’re wondering, the face coverings are there to highlight the post-apocalyptic setting the production calls for; a world where the environment and indeed the structures of society have collapsed. Power struggles over what little remains are the order of the day and the self-proclaimed leader has to watch his back as those who have a “lean and hungry look” circle for an opportunity to take over. Although Shed can’t have known it when they started planning this take on the Bard’s work, the situation has become oh so of the moment as our politicians jostle for position and the environment goes to pot in the heat of the driest summer on record. Who said Shakespeare wasn’t relevant?

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There are only seven performers from diverse geographical backgrounds, so there’s quite a bit of doubling with many characters failing to survive their own literary assassination – the eight conspirators for instance are reduced to just three. Fortunately, these include the two stand out performances from Tor Leijten and Florence Guy as Brutus and Cassius. The former particularly speaks the surviving dialogue with passion and conviction and has a strong understanding of how Shakespeare’s words and rhythms don’t need embroidering to make them effective. Also having some strong moments is Alun Rees as Mark Anthony; he even manages to make one of the most cliched phrases in the canon (“Friends, Romans, countrymen”) sound fresh. I was surprised to see the scenes with Calpurnia and Portia survive the abridgement but Clara Rozzi and particularly Andrew Krueger brought some unexpected tenderness to their characterisations which threw some of the other horrors into sharp relief.

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The Canal Café’s stage is not an easy one to work on for more than a small handful of performers and there were several moments which could do with reblocking in order to improve sightlines. I missed Caesar’s actual assassination entirely and, without wishing to be ghoulish, anyone who does so is bound to feel a little cheated. To be fair this was essentially the company’s opening shot of the run, and no doubt lessons will have been learned. Generally though, it’s an intense production with moments of genuine horror – the several deaths which occur may be less bloodthirsty than usual but are none the less stomach churning for that. They also highlight the enforced improvising nature of the future society in which events take place and thematically tie together the concept of mask wearing which runs throughout. While I still remain to be fully convinced of the merits of Julius Caesar, this punchy retelling kept my attention throughout and provided an interesting concept in which the piece was redeveloped. And as for “gig theatre” in general, I’m feeling rather more kindly disposed to it than at the end of last week; mostly because this production used it to enhance the storytelling rather than it just being a trendy bolt on. Perhaps, given time, I could even become a convert.

Rome 3000 is running as part of the Camden Fringe Festival at the Canal Café and Cockpit Theatres – click here

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