Julius Caesar may be a play written over 400 years ago about events which took place over 2000 years ago, but it is still very modern in its main themes. The Studio Theatre Club’s production in Abingdon underlines that fact by clothing its characters in modern military uniforms and equipping them with serious looking hardware (all “totally inert replicas” their programme hastens to inform the nervous).
The overall theme is essentially a power struggle. A would-be autocrat is assassinated by those hostile to his power and ambition, but his death merely creates a vacuum into which Brutus and Cassius and Mark Anthony and Octavius step, fighting to replace him at the centre of the Roman empire. And the brutal lesson which Shakespeare seems to tell is that in such circumstances the winner is likely to be the most ruthless.
The decision by director Philip Shepherd to cast Cassius as a female character (Francesca Richards) is striking. Cassius is a close friend of Brutus, who also privately and publicly professes love for Caesar, and at one level the play is about Cassius winning Brutus from Caesar and the consequences which derive from that. Cassius is the person who persuades Brutus to join and spearhead the plot against Caesar. Cassius is also the person whose advice Brutus follows on more than one occasion, but most notably when she tells Brutus not to allow Mark Anthony to give a speech at Caesar’s funeral - ignoring Cassius' guidance proves a critical mistake for Brutus.
The role assigned to women by Shakespeare in this essentially male play is interesting. The warnings and advice which are given by Calpurnia (Caesar’s wife), Portia (Brutus’ wife), and the Soothsayer (plus in this interpretation Richards' Cassius) are dismissed by the men with fatal consequences.
It is a big play with a large cast in a small auditorium, but it is a thoroughly entertaining evening. There were some fine performances by the main characters. Charlie Vicary as Mark Anthony was convincing as a practical soldier and excellent when delivering the famous ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ speech. Matt Fifield was cool, off-hand and decisive as Octavius, appropriately so for a man who would eventually become the Emperor.
Francesca Richards and Jon Shepherd as Cassius and Brutus played off each other well. The closeness of their relationship is central to the plot and Shepherd also portrays very effectively the emotional and moral conflict which Brutus feels between his love for Caesar and his love for the old republican structures of Rome.
There are some fine performances amongst some of the ‘minor’ characters too, notably Matt Kirk who pops up in various different roles.
I can thoroughly recommend going to the play. My only proviso would be to make sure you dress warmly. Central heating and double-glazing were not in vogue when Abingdon Abbey was built!