Low Down

Directed by Mark Brailsford and with costumes designed by Sean Chapman (supplied by and thanks to Gladrags, Fabrica, all at Lewes Castle, Sam Cartwright) this production is segmented by a music system directed by Brailsford (Nino Rota and Reservoir of Dogs tracks), with Associate Director Sarah Mann and Assistant director cast-member Kerren Garner. Fight Arranger Jack Kristiansen, Assistant Fight Arranger  Josh Plummer, ASM’s Oscar Smart.


Review

How far we’ve travelled to get to this Philippi, yet it blinks past. On the first night of Brighton Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar the air was mobbed with crows and storm stopped play in the interval. Razors in this lean and hungry production are worn on the inside: those Versace suit creases in this stylish red black and white struggle for empire. Tonally too it’s a long way from Nino Rota through Reservoir of Dogs to a somnolent guitar.


This is a production both immensely clear, mostly well contrasted with every character recognizable and lent amplitude, with a few stunning performances. One major role in particular is the finest I’ve ever seen on any stage.


Directed by Mark Brailsford who takes on the Cobbler and Soothsayer (directing sadly limits Brailsford’s roles) with a comedy you’d expect from his Treason Show which he flags up, it’s a stylish production whose ostensible rationale never gets in the way of the words. Brailsford is a comedy cobbler enlivening the opening scene, and though the Soothsayer really should be a serious role, no-one’s complaining when it’s done with such distrait panache.


So we’re in mafia territory? No. There’d be no crowds, no empire to defend, no coronation to forestall, no parleying soldiers (we get impressive military gear later) though you would get stand-offs. Point is it looks good and when lights come on after the interval it’s a stunningly handsome production exuding a lean mincing of enemies. It lacks clutter. Job done. They sleep with their ancestral fishes.


Those Versace costumes designed by Sean Chapman (supplied by and thanks to Gladrags et al) also reference a Roman uniformity. It confers that on the delivery and choreography too. That melds with Fight Arranger Jack Kristiansen’s balletic mobbing and sudden streaming out of figures like blood. With minimal props – two benches, a red-striated back wall. The striking use of lighting – another ballet – is by ‘Ethel Mermen’.


The music system’s directed by Brailsford (Nino Rota through Reservoir of Dogs for the murder) – there’s clear blocking here, partly the work of Associate Director Sarah Mann and Assistant director cast-member Kerren Garner.


Julian Parker takes the title role as a more urbane, coolly adamantine character than some Caesars. Slightly younger than a few conspirators (Caesar was just 56) Parker suggests a man with more years left than many want, though never moves out of his dignity. His final speech finds him at his north star best. Tia Dunn as his wife enjoys one major scene as his wife Calphurnia and deploys a run of fearful rhetoric. Dunn plays Calphurnia as one long inured to alarm, but newly agonised having thought it all past.


After the pageantry of Caesar passes we’re introduced to the conscience and the cosh: Stewart Barham’s Brutus and Sean McLevy’s Cassius. Both look lean enough and McLevy’s hungry-looking too, both admirably lucid. Barham brings stillness, poise and agon to his Brutus, essential for the role. He’s clear, thoughtful, not easily moved to action. You believe in his bleak iteration of revolt.


McLevy’s challenge is to snip across this deliberation with the cut and thrust of hunger, the urgency of always being right (except right at the end, too quick despairer) and in many scenes threatening to kill himself if not in some way loved by Brutus. It’s a co-dependency this pair bring out best at their end. McLevy doesn’t pick up the pace enough to cross Brutus’ deliberate rhythms, and like Cassius in one way, proves hypnotised by them. That can be supported, though the tenor of Shakespeare’s language suggests a seething and pushing at Brutus’ tardiness. What we do get though is admirable clarity, and that matters.


Garner is one of the stars as Portia, Brutus’ wife, an arch of noble passion tempered with being Cato’s daughter. She sparks flints off the agonised Barham, and we squirm when she reveals her self-inflicted wound. Garner gradates poise with danger in her plea that sheathes a suicidal Lucrece in her. Her ‘dwell I but in the suburbs of your pleasure?’ is seethed out with real patrician hauteur and chiding, a wincing nobility. And when she spits out the word ‘whore’ to denote her mere sexual use there’s venom, anguish, love. Garner radiates this. She returns as the noble messenger Titinius, unable to save Cassius.


Deborah Kearne too is first-rate as the sardonic mocking yet deeply-dyed conspirator Caska, and it’s a delight to see Kearne, now deeply imbued with One Fell Swoop experience take on this role with a fluency and attack fully charactered through the verse. Kearne’s Caska is one of the finest I’ve seen too – like Garner as Portia. She makes Caska a languorous yet spitting thing, with depth and fury. Apart from a mocking Plebeian, Kearne re-emerges as soldier Lucillus, the highly loyal soldier pretending to be Brutus, inviting death so Brutus might escape.


Jules Craig’s first role as Flavius, canny stirrer-up of trouble gives way to a deeper one: her sophist role as Decius is her big moment, and Craig as we’ve seen is a fine Shakespearean, both at BSC and OFS. Craig employs the light irony of a caressing voice that’s eerily even creepily funny. The way Craig plays Parkin’s Caesar can be touched almost for broad comedy. Craig avoids this, letting the ludicrousness of Caesar’s own vanity work on itself. Though Decius vanishes Craig’s back as a Plebeian, then a soldier Massala, loyal to Brutus, always bringer of bad news.


We first see A W King’s Marullus twinned with Craig’s Flavius, disgusted patricians hating Caesar’s populist authoritarianisms. King’s Cinna is fine: the one who strikes the first blow, disarmingly light, and deadly as played here – the way King also plays Pindarus, the slave who helps Cassius kill himself, and is thereby released to make his way back to Parthia. It’s a fine tiny role.


Stage Manager Katy Matthews makes a swift impression as Caesar’s Servant, and as Trebonius ASM Oscar Smart appears briefly as an early conspirator, later as a soldier; his Trebonius suggests a realistic edginess: he’s not sure if he wants to be there.


It’s after most of these characters are introduced, or the actors’ first avatars, that things explode. First that murder, highly ritualised – the comic choice of music adds little to it, it’s stark enough.


As Mark Antony, Andrew Crouch is perhaps the finest I’ve seen. I’m including the 2018 Bridge production in that roster. As soon as he enters the production electrifies. His seeming acceptance of the conspirators, his searing apologia then explosion in ‘Cry Havoc! And let slip the dogs of war’ is supremely terraced.


He of course dominates the earlier much of the next scene after the interval. And here Brailsford’s superbly placed his crowd shouting out from corners next the audience itself, making us conspirators or the swayed mob. It’s consummately done by all of them.


Here Crouch knows how to deny his rhetoric whilst placing a model degree of sophistry in his ‘honourable men’ repeats, devaluing the currency with every iteration. It’s masterly, nailing, ironclad and blood-red. Crouch’s suddenness in ‘remembering’ the will he’s in fact withheld, the revelation of Caesar’s body, is the most directly thrilling unfolding of this scene I’ve witnessed. Elsewhere Crouch knows how to bump up against Octavius, and deliver the final oration with nobility – without seeming to gain a cheap cynical laugh, a recent get-out in some productions.


Crouch matches James Corrigan’s 2017 RSC Mark Antony in many ways, including rhetorical trickery; and in ramped-up power Crouch exceeds him. Crouch might not have developed every chilly detail of that full-scale Stratford/Barbican spectacle but to encounter this in Brighton, even with the superb BSC, is a privilege.


There’s strong support too from George Derbyshire’s truculent jaw-thrusting Octavius Caesar. We see them first in the fast-unravelling second half, with the latter part of Act III through to the end cleverly pared down – virtually nothing is left out though. I’m rather relieved the grotesque killing of Cinna the poet is excluded with its rough humour (‘hang him for his bad verses’ when it’s realised he’s no conspirator, but merely prey). Most, Brailsford’s way with the starkly-lit shadows is a metaphor for how he telescopes things in the latter part.


This second half moves quickly. We’re shown how Derbyshire and Crouch spar and edge off with whose relatives they trade off to kill, playing with Tia Dunn’s small role of Lepidus, nominally an equal but merely as Mark Antony suggests their horse. Derbyshire has small time to establish himself but stands up to Crouch, which is really something. He fills his military clothing like a young bull.


Most touching of all though is that small role we see ripple throughout, gracile, fragile, Phoebe Elliott’s heartwarming Lucius. This is Brutus’ loyal servant, whom Barham’s Brutus shows much tenderness to when he falls asleep playing the lute; Barham’s character plucks the lute away gently lest Lucius break it by rolling over. Nevertheless Brutus exposes Lucius to something terrible, and Elliott flinches superbly. It’s a touching relationship, the tenderness Brutus can’t show to his wife in their mutually agonised plea for trust is expressed here, and Elliott expresses that quintessence.


A fleet powerful Julius Caesar, with fine ostensible premises giving way to better; the velocity of this fast-paced play whose leanness Brailsford grasps and his cast get the pith of. A few outstanding performances show how unbearably tense it could become. As it is, when Crouch delivers the coup de grace as a benediction and release, you feel the road to Philippi travelled.


Published September 13, 2021 by Simon Jenner