This is a very abridged version of the Shakespeare Play and as such it fair zips by. The pace is frenetic and even when there is stillness it still infects the drama with a sense of urgency.
This works largely in the play’s favour, most of the time. Seventy-five minutes being a much more comfortable watch than the 2+ hours the play lasted at Bridge Theatre last year, for example. Shakespeare’s tendency to compress events added to this shortening does make it harder to understand quite how we get from the hailing of Julius Caesar as a new king and the decision by his colleagues to kill him. It also makes the emotional journey of some of those colleagues – in particular Brutus (ably played by Matt Penson) who’s sharp change of mind is sharper still when abridged.
The pace is welcome, for the most part, and helps to build an inevitable drumbeat to the war that the death of Caesar unleashes. In this manner, the drama strangely becomes more compelling once the title character is dispatched off. I enjoyed the latter half more than the first as the drama developed into a classic Shakespearean tragedy of consequences and recriminations. A highlight was the ‘speech off’ between Brutus – trying to justify the murder and Mark Anthony (Niall Burns) – who turns the crowd in the other direction.
The staging – as always at the Lion and Unicorn – is well thought through, with actors sometimes going offstage but more often staying onstage and changing under blankets to delineate where they are playing different roles (for example, Aimee Kember wears a regel red velvet jacket as Caesar and a very snazzy dressing gown when later portraying Portia). The constant presence of actors who were not part of the immediate drama helped build the sense of a city – one where the crowd is a character in itself – one which often leads the action.
I have a personal preference when it comes to how Shakespeare is delivered that is not very common. Too many actors – especially in his war plays – make the choice to be quite ‘shouty’ when delivering their lines. I can see why this is tempting and makes the choice to show violence and anger easier, but for me it is far too overused, especially in a smaller fringe venue. This is a minor quibble with what was generally a very good, able and impressive young cast. They were doing something so well known and giving it a frenetic new lease of life that was exciting and interesting. Mad Wolf are definitely a theatre company to watch and Lion and Unicorn continue to make some of the most interesting and engaging choices on the London Fringe.
Julius Caesar, presented by Mad Wolf Theatre was on 14-18 January 2020.