‘Cry ‘havoc’, and let slip the dogs of war’ and that is exactly what director Loveday Ingram has done with her bloodthirsty, violent and utterly gripping production of Shakespeare’s famous political thriller at Storyhouse in Chester.
So many theatres around the world seem to be doing their own versions of this celebrated work this year but credit to Ingram for not over-playing the Donald Trump parallels the way others have done.
Her message is more along the lines of the universal lessons to be learned from the themes of Shakespeare’s play - thus we have a story clearly set in the Italian capital with the occasional striking use of American motifs while allowing some characters to speak with broad Northern English accents.
Certainly the exploration of populist politics and the fickle nature of public opinion feels frighteningly relevant in 2017 and as the pendulum of popularity swings between Brutus and Mark Antony, one was reminded less of Trump and more of the recent contrasting fortunes of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.
All of this is reinforced by the brilliant use of the raucous community chorus of enthusiastic Cestrians who throw themselves wholeheartedly into their roles right from the opening scene, which takes place in the public foyer area of Storyhouse as the banner-waving, cheering and jeering crowd prepares to welcome Caesar into the building before both cast and audience make their way into the main auditorium.
Julius Caesar is known for being one of the Bard’s most speech-heavy works, which is not surprising considering its subject matter, but in Loveday Ingram’s hands, this also happens to be a visually stunning interpretation which expertly uses the versatile thrust-stage environment of Storyhouse.
This is never more apparent than in the extraordinary, once-seen-never-forgotten sequence where the traitorous senators brutally slay Caesar and fake blood gushes from the ceiling to bathe both victim and murderers in hellish red.
Striking contrast is also drawn between the political machinations of the first half, when it’s all about sharp suits, mobile phones, iPads, posturing and plotting under the cover of darkness, and the open warfare of the second when you have the khaki-clad troops loyal to Brutus clashing with the ominously black-clothed figures of Mark Antony’s forces.
Also matching each other blow for blow are the actors portraying these two most crucial roles. Richard Pepper is outstanding as a brooding, conflicted Brutus who manages to engage the audience’s sympathy in a way his fellow conspirators never quite achieve, troubled by the fact he seems powerless to avoid the homicidal, rebellious course fate has mapped out for him.
Another spark of genius from Loveday Ingram was to switch genders for certain key characters, most daring of all with Mark Antony. And thank goodness for this because it meant we were all privileged enough to witness the astonishing Natalie Grady give a Shakespearean performance the equal of any man who has previously played the role.
Just compare the careful wariness with which she mollifies the murderous mob of senators after they have done their bloody deed with the growing fury of her delivery of the famous ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech which is simply one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had in the theatre.
It also means Grady can use her sexuality to twist Octavius (Fred Lancaster) around her little finger in the few but passionately charged scenes between them in the second half, providing a novel twist to the otherwise battle-ready settings.
Christopher Wright makes for an imperious and physically imposing Caesar during the early scenes of the play but he is arguably at his most memorable after his death in two chilling scenes where his vengeful spirit returns to torment the tortured Brutus and oversee the impending downfall of those who butchered him.
And full marks to Christopher Staines who does superbly well with the most thankless role in the play as Cassius, brother to Brutus, who is odious in the first half and pleading in the second but remains compelling throughout.
I suspect this production will be a very different experience when it transfers to the open air of Grosvenor Park in August but on the Storyhouse Stage it is edge-of-the-seat theatre at its intense best.
Julius Caesar resumes its run on Thursday, July 13 and can be seen at Storyhouse until July 30. The production then transfers to Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre where it can be seen from August 3-27. Visit www.storyhouse.com for details.