Augustine United Church, Edinburgh – until 5 March 2016
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
A football-themed Julius Caesar at Edinburgh’s Augustine United Church pitches Shakespeare against the world of agents, bungs and FIFA, but neither can be said to come out the winner.
James Beagon’s Aulos Productions have set Shakespeare’s Roman tale in the modern world of professional football, with its attendant celebrity, attraction and corruption. This is an intriguing premise that is carried out with some success, but shoots tantalisingly wide overall.
Shakespeare’s plots have been transferred to footballing settings before – Neil Arksey’s MacB, for example reworks the Scottish Play in the context of a school team, while the late Mal Peet’s Exposure is an intriguing use of Othello.
Those are prose retellings however – this is an attempt to set the original play in the world of football, and it is a decidedly mixed success. Many of the themes of honour, blind loyalty and tribalism are undoubtedly there in the source story of the assassination of the Roman general and would-be tyrant by his erstwhile friends, and the civil strife that follows.
The comparison of the mob violence in Rome with some of those ‘top boys’ from Danny Dyer-fronted hooligan documentaries has certainly been made before.
On a more than cursory examination, however, it does not hold together. Quite how the instant transition would be made from star player of Roma to head of FIFA is less than clear – let alone why this would be performed by the Senate, involve the award of a crown, or be feared by large numbers of the population as tyranny.
More seriously, the division of the cast into two football teams, with accordingly coloured strips, and no middle ground, makes much of the storyline confusing. Why would someone showing blind loyalty to Caesar’s side Roma once have cheered on the Lazio player Pompey, as we are assured in the opening scene? And, more bafflingly, how on earth did Brutus ever imagine he could win over a crowd of Roma fanatics after Caesar’s death, when they despise him for his Lazio connections?
Alice Markey, Joseph Mcaulay, Marina Johnson, Charlie Angelo, Daniel Orejon and Lewis Robertson. Photo Aliza Hoover at Ummatiddle
There are certainly parts of the play that can resonate concerning the ‘glory hunting’ habits of less committed fans (notably the Cinna the poet episode, cut from this production) but hardcore ‘ultras’ of the type represented here would not change their loyalties so easily – or at all.
This is not down to an absence of thought; more a lack of rigour. The trouble is that, the more parallels you insert and the more carefully you draw them, the more glaringly obvious the parts that fail to fit become. Like the Young Adult books mentioned above, which explicitly use football as a hook for reluctant readers, there is an attempt to make the story ‘accessible’, but it ends up as a mishmash that sheds no light on Rome, Shakespeare, or football.
Some of the characters’ roles in the footballing world are clear, others far less so, and the descriptions in the programme makes things less rather than more obvious. Footballers’ superstitions tend to be of the ‘left boot on first’, or ‘last out of the tunnel’ variety, so why they suddenly put such store in heavenly portents or soothsayers is unclear, with the statement on the video screen that the soothsayer is a ‘disgraced journalist’ doing nothing to clarify matters.
The video screen is used better at times than others, with the adverts and Buzzfeed-style headlines providing much-needed context, and the use of Sky Sports News-style rolling headlines to portray Portia’s state of mind is very clever.
However, the temptation to show football highlights should have been firmly avoided. The Achilles heel of many football-based films and television dramas is the inadequacy of the onfield action, and here there was no necessity to have any. The constant replays of what is (the decidedly impressive Caesar aside) a stumbling five-a-side in the Meadows, undermine what is happening onstage and are an unnecessary comic distraction.
Christopher Paddon and Daniel Orejon. Photo Aliza Hoover at Ummatiddle
Adam Butler’s Caesar is a commanding figure off the pitch too, calm and clear, with the absence of reasons why he might be considered a nascent tyrant down to the concept more than his performance.
Several of the most impressive performances come from female cast members. Alice Markey (Decius) is unusually lucid, while Heather Daniel (Calpurnia) is a suitably dominating presence. Sophie Harris (Portia), meanwhile, is the best thing about the play, as she understands the rhythms of Shakespeare’s language better than anyone.
Unfortunately, this cannot be said of Lewis Robertson’s Brutus. He certainly suggests emotional turmoil, but his lines come out in peculiarly punctuated torrents, with the last word in lines or phrases often appearing as an afterthought. Why such a brooding, shambling figure should be so admired, or regarded by the other conspirators as a necessary figurehead, is a mystery.
Tom Birch’s Antony, meanwhile, is so transparently self-serving and untrustworthy that his status as a leader is equally puzzling. If there is no suggestion that either Brutus or Antony could possibly be motivated by loyalty to Rome, or indeed anything other than self-interest, the play collapses. Notions of honour, or of the individual subordinating their interests to the state, may be archaic, but without them what happens makes little sense.
There is a conspicuous lack of light and shade in what should be complex characters. Cassius (Christopher Paddon) has a degree of fire, but this manifests itself in a tendency to shout his lines at every possible opportunity. This is mirrored by far too many of the performers; whole swathes of the already severely cut second half are simply lost in general brouhaha.
Some minor roles are sketchy at best. It is unfair to single out Charlie Angelo’s Casca, but his face-pulling and twitching – often when other characters are speaking – are particularly off-putting.
This is symptomatic of the production. Technically it is strong, but the technology is not always sensibly used. The thoughtful and thought-provoking nature of much of Beagon’s direction is lost in a series of strange choices.
The climactic battle – here, a punch-up to the Champions League anthem well choreographed by Rachel Bussom – at least has an energy and brio that is missing elsewhere. Otherwise, this has to go down as a missed opportunity.
Running time 2 hours (including one interval)
Augustine United Church, 41 George IV Bridge, EH1 1EL
Tuesday 1 – Saturday 5 March 2016
Daily at 7.30pm
Full details and tickets: https://www.sparkseat.com/events/aulos-productions-julius-caesar
Aulos Productions website: http://aulosproductions.com/
Aulos on Facebook: aulosproductions
Aulos on Twitter: @AulosProduction