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‘A Classic(al) Comedy of Errors': The Assassination of Julius Caesar Review

Written by Rebecca Harrison

The first run of The Assassination of Julius Caesar, written and directed by Open Theatre’s Ejiro Raye was last night (25th Nov) at the Pyramid Theatre.

Photo from rehearsal: Senators beg for pardon

As we take our seats, the Roman Senators are already jeering at each other from opposing benches on either side of the stage, clad in white robes and uniformly sandalled. The staging and set are inviting with their bright lighting, ivy-strewn podium and tinkling instrumental. This contrast sets the tone for a classic(al) comedy of errors, albeit one with an unexpected number of dick jokes.

The acting is exceptional. From the heckling Senators (Morgan Scriven, Luke Anderson and Hugo Knowles) to the rawring Gladiators (Ulysse Dauchez and August Berner), incompetent Generals, and maddened Tyrants, hurls an energy that does not waver throughout the whole production. The staging is effective and serves to highlight the elements of comedy and tragedy that punctuate the play–the stabbing of Caesar by the whole ensemble is executed (excuse the pun) particularly well.

A special mention has to go to Spike Woodley for a hilarious performance as the controlled, slightly camp Caesar - or Jools, to his inner circle. Woodley’s combination of gentle gestures and deadly commands was mesmerising: a thumbs down decided the fate of the gladiators; and the flick of his wrist sentenced his men to their deaths.

Caesar also delivers some of the best punchlines. At one point, he is afraid of the ‘vipers’ plotting against him: ‘The dagger stocks are booming!'

Not only that, but Raye provided some great slapstick: the guard, Felix (Laurentz Valdez-Lea), bonks various misbehaving senators when they speak out of turn; and Brutas (Phoebe Curtis) and Caesar both sleep on a bed of kneeling slaves, who, each time their masters have woken up, get up themselves, stretching and groaning, and amble grumpily off stage. A similar moment is with Felix’s honest remarks: they carry defiant cheek, but he exonerates himself by slipping back into the role of the impassive and diligent servant. This “mischief of the subordinate” is a Monty-Python-esque trope that Raye uses to great effect.

This play is unbelievably crude, but this provides some of the play's best moments. What works is when crudeness is the modality of the play's silliness--'you sweaty pedo' being a personal favourite. But some of the jokes lacked tact. This works in the first half because of Caesar. His ability to command his audience - both onstage and off - creates a dynamic with the rest of the cast that really works. His sanity anchors the play, around which the mad, boyish senators whirl. But when the throne is usurped by the ‘horny tyrant’, Mark Anthony (Lewis Fraser), and later the sadistic Octavian (Talia Simmons), the intensity of the crudeness, and indeed the characters’ idiotic insanity are free to run wild. The effect is that of reaching a plateau: where do you go when you’re already at 100%? It is a shame because the acting is engaging, convincing and full of force.

That said, the unrelenting obscenity works within the plot; we are meant to despise Mark Anthony, his rape threats, and his disturbing meglomania; and we are meant to see the idiocy of the ‘incels’ who overthrow Caesar; and watch them whirl around each other until they implode. Still, with the amount of comic freedom that barrels through the production, I’d hope for something to temper the vulgarity.

Other times, the play was original and brilliant. There is a minute-long stand-up introducing the second half where the Orator (Thomas Davy) comments on Caesar’s death, then awkwardly segues into the admission: ‘It’s been three months since my wife left me.’

I think this captures the essence of the production. It is a rip-roaring rampage of dick jokes, but also a clever, inventive play with moments of self-satire that doesn’t take itself too seriously. After this and The Passions of Bonnie and Clyde (read Review), Raye is promising to be a writer/director to watch out for. The show runs for the next two nights. Tickets available here.

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