Review: Julius Caesar, St Paul’s Church

“Here is a mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome”

It starts off like Shakespeare meets Mad Max, but Iris Theatre’s inventive and contemporary reimagining of Julius Caesar at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden gradually unfurls a much more intelligent reading and builds into something infinitely more moving than Tina Turner atop the Thunderdome could ever hope for. In their fifth year of designing site-specific productions for this tucked away Central London venue, there’s a clear sense from Iris of the possibilities and practicalities of putting together a piece of gently immersive theatre that genuinely works but this has been paired here with a deeply considered retelling of the play that surely makes it one of the Shakespearean highlights of the summer.

Daniel Winder has translated this Roman epic into a near-future dystopian version of the world, with riot shields and a dubstep soundtrack setting the scene for the opening as a cast of seven pull us into a tale of political struggle and violent betrayal that sadly rings true in any period of time. The shaven hairstyles and lean muscularity of the rebels, led by Nick Howard-Brown’s manipulative Cassius and David Hywel Baynes’ more nobly-inclined Brutus contrast well against the beefier aesthetic of the neo-imperialist rulers, Matthew Mellalieu’s Caesar and Matt Wilman’s outrageously stacked Mark Anthony. And as they all fight for the hearts and minds of the people, as well as reconciling their sense of duty with the love they bear for those closest to them, the production successfully negotiates the ambiguity that often accompanies the corrupting nature of power and the journey to seek it.  
It’s a boldly ambitious vision and one which is forcefully delivered. Mellalieu captures the swaggering arrogance of the title character, Howard-Brown’s Cassius is beautifully spoken as he lays the plans for Caesar’s seizure in motion and Daniel Hanna excels as a feral Casca, proudly blood-soaked throughout. But David Hywel Baynes is sensationally good as Brutus, increasingly overtaken by remorse and touchingly concerned with how his actions will impact those around him. That includes us as members of the audience, variously called upon to be cup-bearers, mourners at Caesar’s tomb, lords in the Senate, the baying masses in the Forum. But this is participatory theatre of a moderate nature, warmly involving rather than leaving anyone feeling exposed and in the various setting in and around St Paul’s Church and its grounds, it is a clever way of making the crowd work as part of each scene.

Changing Cinna the Poet’s fate may outrage purists but having Laura Wickham’s brutalised silent witness a key presence in the climactic scenes becomes almost unbearably moving, the focus being on the quiet desperation of war espoused by Brutus rather than the grandiose machismo of Caesar himself. And by the time the production’s final grace note is played as we’re seated in the church itself, only the flintiest of hearts could remain unmoved. Filipe Gomes’ sound design, directed by Candida Caldicot, is a little over-insistent at times though, too often striking boldly where a sense of subtlety might serve better as the setting and performances offer more than enough atmosphere to make this a most striking piece of theatre.

Running time: 3 hours (with interval)

Booking until 26th July

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Actors Church Covent Garden

“I shall do thee mischief in the wood…
‘Ay, in the town, in the temple…’”

Last July’s Romeo and Juliet at the Actors Church in Covent Garden was a real unexpected surprise in a summer that was full of productions of that play, site-specific theatre that genuinely worked with the idiosyncrasies of the venue and able to exploit them to their full advantage. This year Iris Theatre are putting on A Midsummer Night’s Dream as their main production for the summer, an early showing of which I caught this week, to see whether the magic could be recaptured with this, my most favourite of Shakespeare’s plays.

The venue is St Pauls Church, right in the middle of Covent Garden with its own secluded courtyard filled with trees and shrubbery, which lends itself well to the evocation of the Forest of Arden: Dan Winder’s fluid production places a strong connection with nature front and centre so that the fairies are closer to woodland sprites than the ballet-dressed moppets of old, fitting in perfectly to the grassy knolls, wildflower-strewn groves and secluded bowers, the steps of the church creating a more stately locations where needed. The audience follows the action around the grounds, though there’s only perhaps 2 moves in each half and there’s sufficient room for everyone at each place, sitting or standing – something which is not always the case in promenade productions. Continue reading “Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Actors Church Covent Garden”

Review: Romeo and Juliet, Actors Church Covent Garden

“Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night”

So my second Romeo & Juliet in a central London (but off-West-End) venue in a week but whilst this is a modern dress Romeo & Juliet, it wisely leaves alone from much else tinkering. Set in the grounds and gardens, and finally inside, The Actors Church otherwise known as St Pauls Church in Covent Garden, this is a fresh, thoroughly honest and intimate telling of this familiar tale by Iris Theatre which offers a beautifully direct connection to the material. Fierce from the outset, there’s bottling, punching and flick-knives by the dozen, the opening brawl leaves many of the cast spitting (fake) blood and covered in plasters and bandages for the rest of the show: there’s little holding back from the brutality of the violence endemic in this family feud. But likewise, there’s no hiding from the depth of emotion here as well; this production contains a pair of central performances in an utterly convincing portrayal of teenage lust and passion.

There’s a wonderful use of the nooks and crannies of St Pauls, a surprisingly calm environment enclosed on all sides by tall buildings and the hustle and bustle of Covent Garden. The audience is seated on benches for the longer scenes, but occasionally we wander to different areas to witness a rave in a garden complete with Bonnie Tyler dance routine, or snoop on the lovers in their hammock in a shaded corner, or in a brilliant moment, watch Juliet as she emerges in the window of one of the adjoining houses for the balcony scene. Then as we approach the final scene, we are invited into the church itself and it is a breathtaking moment: lit by hundreds of candles and a striking large blue neon cross, the air laden with incense, the bodies of Juliet and Paris laid on the altar, it is incredibly effective and atmospheric and demonstrates a superbly sensitive understanding of the opportunities provided by this venue. Continue reading “Review: Romeo and Juliet, Actors Church Covent Garden”