Rainbow Factory's contemporary adaptation of Julius Caesar has a lean and hungry look, Lisa Nelson approves
Julius Caesar, arguably Shakespeare's most sophisticated political thriller, is given a contemporary make-over by The Rainbow Factory’s Company Youth Theatre Group. The play, which explores issues of power, societal violence and the morality of murder, decamps Rome's Via Sacre to set up shop on Belfast's Shankill Road.
Artistic Director of The Rainbow Factory, Tom Finlay, says, 'For me, Shakespeare is really important for young people, particularly for those who hope to go on to drama school. We try to find ways to make our productions relevant to our pupils and we try to encourage a younger audience, so we want to make it interesting to them.'
So rather than the post-Julius Caesar Roman civil war, this version of the play takes place against the backdrop of a loyalist feud. It is loosely based, according to Finlay, on on real events in the loyalist community during the early 21st century.
Shakespeare’s original characters and locations remain in this version, but with a bit of local flavour. Julius Caesar is the leader of a loyalist paramilitary gang, the Senate is an Orange Hall and the Soothsayer, who famously tells Caesar to 'beware the Ides of March', is a dishevelled drunk, permanently attached to a can of larger.
The staging is simple yet effective. A mural that would not have looked out of place on a gable wall in east Belfast serves as the backdrop, along with a single tier stage. Flags and Union Jack bunting set the scene in the Orange Hall.
The combination of a familiar setting and Shakespearean language work surprisingly well together. Despite the unfamiliar dialect, the audience quickly engage with the story being played out on stage.
Another contemporary touch is the use of rock music to mask the scene changes. The degree of rock - a sliding scale of frenetic guitar chords and drumbeats - also serves to convey the rising tensions and, in the second half, to underline the descent into anarchy.
The young cast (all aged between 16 and 25), led by Jason Allen as the ambitious Caesar, overcame any opening night nerves to deliver solid performances throughout. Aiden Davidson and Chris Mohan worked well together as talented politician Anthony and sinister Octavius respectively. Special mention should go to Phillip Rafferty as Brutus. He managed to play the tragic hero of the piece with intensity and conviction.
The theatre company recommends that audience members be aged 15 or over. The play is dark in places, and the cast never shy away from the brutality of scenes. Many of which are rendered more stark by being stripped of their historical trappings. The Roman battle sequence in the second half of the play becomes a series of paramilitary-style punishment beatings. Knives and hand guns replace Roman swords and daggers, while well choreographed fight scenes contribute to a chilling, sometimes fragmented, second act.
Rainbow Factory's Julius Caesar is a successful chimera of classical theatre and contemporary styling. Theatre-goers unfamiliar with the original play may find this version more accessible than a traditional production. As for those who know the play well, it is always interesting to see how a contemporary production can give a twist to established interpretations.
Julius Caesar runs from 27th February - 2nd March at the Rainbow Factory Studio Theatre. It will also be performed at the Lyric Theatre’s Naughton Studio on 16th April. Visit the Youth Action website for more details.