Julius Caesar **
Verdict: Rookie Romans
Who was the noblest Roman of them all? From Julius Caesar to Silvio Berlusconi, the eternal city has had more than its fair share of contenders vying for the title of il grande formaggio.
Now that competition is ignited all over again, thanks to a touring revival of Shakespeare’s tragedy opening in Stratford, and a musical spoof about the disgraced media mogul in Southwark.
Julius Caesar at the RSC is the more curious offering, throwing as it does a cast of rookies and debutantes to the lions in another solemnly PC vision of the Bard.
Director Atri Banerjee presents the dog-eat-dog — or cat-eat-Christian — world of Ancient Rome as a marvellously inclusive and diverse democracy.
Here, the conspirators who join forces against the supposed ambition of chubby, middle-aged Caesar (Nigel Barrett) are modish lesbian millennials.
What’s missing from this impeccably PC, orderly and odourless production is a sense of chaos
It’s as though a godlike Alan Sugar had set up a version of The Apprentice and given a team of factious young hopefuls the task of going forth to nail Caesar.
Rising to the challenge, Kelly Gough is a ferocious Cassius. Like a rugby prop forward, she puts her shoulder to Shakespeare’s oratorical verse to shove Thalissa Teixeira’s long, languid Brutus into leading a conspiracy against Caesar.
Sadly, though, Teixeira remains stubbornly lovely and decisively vague. Perhaps that’s because she is enjoying a perfect life with her vibrant wife, Portia.
Given that she tells us she loves Caesar (platonically), she is motivated to kill him only for the honour of terminating his ambition.
Today, alas, honour is an anachronism and ambition a moral positive — so we are left with an ideological vacuum, with little reason for the conspirators to risk their cosy utopia of diversity and inclusivity.
It might have helped if William Robinson, as their rival Mark Antony, was more of a nasty fascist instead of an equally sensitive millennial.
And, with the exception of Nadi Kemp-Sayfi’s emotionally modulated Portia, over-emphatic diction all but destroys Shakespeare’s nuances, ironies and moods.
Rosanna Vize’s staging looks cool, with a huge rotating cube housing an olive tree and allowing arty projections that also crowbar in an obscure environmental message.
Inscrutably allied to this is the use of oil instead of fake blood, and an atomic clock counting down time.
And there is arresting music from Jasmin Kent Rodgman, which combines primal wails, throbbing drums and cacophonous brass.
What’s missing from this impeccably PC, orderly and odourless production is a sense of chaos.
For that we must look to Shakespeare’s grammar, expurgated throughout and reaching its nadir in the bathos of Mark Antony’s verdict on Brutus: ‘She is an honourable man.’
Verdict: Ignoblest Roman
As many women know to their cost, Silvio Berlusconi needs to be handled with care. So too, I fear, does this witless and generic new bio-musical, Berlusconi, opening Southwark Playhouse’s new third venue.
The chaotic tone of Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan’s show, which is nigh on three hours long, is poorly judged, inviting us to laugh at the clownish ways of the fraudster famed for throwing ‘bunga bunga’ sex parties at his villa, but also claiming to lament the fate of the women whose lives he poisoned.
Nor is there much Italian about the very Anglo-Saxon rock score, which could indeed be from the opera Berlusconi himself is writing, in one of the show’s unfunny running jokes.
The chaotic tone of Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan’s show, which is nigh on three hours long, is poorly judged
James Grieve’s cramped production crams the narrow stage with a marble precipice emulating the steps to the Italian parliament. He thereby reduces choreography to marching on the spot and arm-waving.
And could he not at least have found a Berlusconi who was short, fat and bald, instead of the tall, thin Sebastien Torkia, with his fecund locks?
In a crowded field that includes Nero and the Borgias, the four-time former Italian Prime Minister was surely one of the ignoblest Romans of them all. And now he has a musical to match.
Fierce farce to make the Met squirm
By Veronica Lee
Accidental Death of an Anarchist *****
WHAT exquisite timing for this exploration of heavy-handed policing, which has its London run (after originating at Sheffield Theatres) just as the capital’s police force is threatened with being broken up after a long series of scandals.
References to the Met’s shortcomings feature prominently in Tom Basden’s brilliant adaptation of Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s political farce, based on real-life events when an anarchist ‘fell’ from a window while being questioned by Milan police in 1969.
In Mr Basden’s updated version, The Maniac (Daniel Rigby) — a fantasist-cum-con artist suffering from, he says, ‘histrionic mania’ — is being questioned by Inspector Burton (Howard Ward) over his latest impersonation when he learns that a suspicious death in the police station is going to be investigated by a judge.
He disguises himself as the justice and starts to interrogate the police, including dense Detective Daisy (Jordan Metcalfe), smug Superintendent Curry (Tony Gardner) and put-upon Constable Joseph (Shane David-Joseph).
Tom Basden’s script is chock-full of visual gags and clever wordplay and Daniel Raggett’s production moves apace to make for thrilling entertainment
But as he digs into their clearly false record of the incident, The Maniac encourages them to add layer upon layer of deceit, ending in the farcical notion it was the officers’ kind treatment of the anarchist — including having a sing-song with him, hilariously staged — that moved him to jump out of the window.
Leading a talented cast, Mr Rigby gives a bravura performance: playfully breaking the fourth wall, he effortlessly brings the audience along with him as he reshapes the officers’ words, and runs rings around investigative journalist Fi Phelan (Ruby Thomas), sent to cover the death.
Mr Basden’s script is chock-full of visual gags and clever wordplay and Daniel Raggett’s production moves apace to make for thrilling entertainment.
The play has only a short run in Hammersmith, but is surely destined for the West End.
Until April 8 (lyric.co.uk)
Step right up for a truly original show
By Georgina Brown
Waldo’s Circus of Magic & Terror ****
Verdict: Grace under pressure
At the centre of this musical show are two disappearing acts. In one, Waldo, the charmless ringmaster and magician for a travelling circus, shuts a cupboard on two performers. Then opens it. Hey presto, they have vanished. Magic.
In another more covert operation, the Nazis ‘purge the world gently’ (to borrow their words), rounding up and ‘disposing’ of those judged ‘useless’. Terror beyond imagining.
Writers Hattie Naylor and Jamie Beddard have stitched together this remarkable if ragged piece from true stories of the likes of Waldo and his circus troupe where those not fitting in elsewhere were welcomed, often because of their so-called ‘freakishness’.
In Germany, under the Nazis, many disabled performers were also smuggled to safety through circus networks.
Not that Waldo (an underpowered Garry Robson) runs a charity. He refuses to shelter Joseph, who is Jewish.
Meanwhile, his latest recruit, Gerhard (Lawrence Swaddle), falls in love with Krista (Abbie Purvis), a person of small stature — but he considers ‘feeble-minded’ Dora to be disposable. Even under this magical big top, Fascism finds fertile ground.
Early on, Krista challenges us to ‘stare, stare, stare’ at those the Brownshirts label ‘freaks’, declaring that she will take back that word, own it and make it hers to shout. Which she does, in song, and with delicious defiance.
More mesmerising still is the aerial duet between Renee (Jonny Leitch, also the band’s drummer) and Peter (Tilly Lee-Kronich), two very different bodies twirling with grace and dreamy desire on a trapeze beneath Ti Green’s atmospheric big top.
There’s much to commend here, not least the ambition of a production in which disabled, neurodivergent and non-disabled performers together reveal the perils of Fascism.
If only the acting, characterisation and narrative were as deft and dazzling as the juggling, contortion and rope-work.
Still, the show’s originality and fearlessness on so many levels takes your breath away.
(For tour dates go to extraordinarybodies.org.uk)
Ugly sisters help sparkling Cinders
Verdict: A ballet to escape bleak times
Panto season may be over, but there’s still ballet. For in the Royal Ballet’s Cinderella, there’s a comic turn from the Ugly Sisters, galumphing through the piece with indefatigable gusto.
In fact, Gary Avis as the Big Sister has more than a touch of Julian Clary about him.
This is the revival, 75 years on, of Frederick Ashton’s production to Prokofiev’s score. Tom Pye’s set is ravishing.
In the Royal Ballet’s Cinderella, there’s a comic turn from the Ugly Sisters, galumphing through the piece with indefatigable gusto
Inside the house, poor Cinders is doing the dusting, while the two heffalump sisters fight for the attention of the dancing master.
On the first night, it was Marianela Nunes as Cinders, wistful and sweet rather than downtrodden. Prokofiev had written that he wanted Cinderella to be a real person.
The tug at the heartstrings comes with her putting her dead mother’s portrait on the mantelpiece, and dancing with the broom.
And boy, what grace she has. In the first act, where the Fairy Godmother — a poised Fumi Kaneko — presides over the fairies of the four seasons, it was the pumpkin coach, drawn by rats, that stole the show.
Vadim Muntagirov is an exceptional prince. He’s dignified and aloof before Cinders arrives, all contained passion thereafter.
Prokofiev lacks the ravishing melodies of Tchaikovsky, but it’s a score that grows on you.
There is a live screening at cinemas on April 12. Hurry!
Runs until May 3.