“Here is a mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome”
It starts off like Shakespeare meets Mad Max, but Iris Theatre’s inventive and contemporary reimagining of Julius Caesar at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden gradually unfurls a much more intelligent reading and builds into something infinitely more moving than Tina Turner atop the Thunderdome could ever hope for. In their fifth year of designing site-specific productions for this tucked away Central London venue, there’s a clear sense from Iris of the possibilities and practicalities of putting together a piece of gently immersive theatre that genuinely works but this has been paired here with a deeply considered retelling of the play that surely makes it one of the Shakespearean highlights of the summer.
Daniel Winder has translated this Roman epic into a near-future dystopian version of the world, with riot shields and a dubstep soundtrack setting the scene for the opening as a cast of seven pull us into a tale of political struggle and violent betrayal that sadly rings true in any period of time. The shaven hairstyles and lean muscularity of the rebels, led by Nick Howard-Brown’s manipulative Cassius and David Hywel Baynes’ more nobly-inclined Brutus contrast well against the beefier aesthetic of the neo-imperialist rulers, Matthew Mellalieu’s Caesar and Matt Wilman’s outrageously stacked Mark Anthony. And as they all fight for the hearts and minds of the people, as well as reconciling their sense of duty with the love they bear for those closest to them, the production successfully negotiates the ambiguity that often accompanies the corrupting nature of power and the journey to seek it.
It’s a boldly ambitious vision and one which is forcefully delivered. Mellalieu captures the swaggering arrogance of the title character, Howard-Brown’s Cassius is beautifully spoken as he lays the plans for Caesar’s seizure in motion and Daniel Hanna excels as a feral Casca, proudly blood-soaked throughout. But David Hywel Baynes is sensationally good as Brutus, increasingly overtaken by remorse and touchingly concerned with how his actions will impact those around him. That includes us as members of the audience, variously called upon to be cup-bearers, mourners at Caesar’s tomb, lords in the Senate, the baying masses in the Forum. But this is participatory theatre of a moderate nature, warmly involving rather than leaving anyone feeling exposed and in the various setting in and around St Paul’s Church and its grounds, it is a clever way of making the crowd work as part of each scene.
Changing Cinna the Poet’s fate may outrage purists but having Laura Wickham’s brutalised silent witness a key presence in the climactic scenes becomes almost unbearably moving, the focus being on the quiet desperation of war espoused by Brutus rather than the grandiose machismo of Caesar himself. And by the time the production’s final grace note is played as we’re seated in the church itself, only the flintiest of hearts could remain unmoved. Filipe Gomes’ sound design, directed by Candida Caldicot, is a little over-insistent at times though, too often striking boldly where a sense of subtlety might serve better as the setting and performances offer more than enough atmosphere to make this a most striking piece of theatre.