Fringe theatre and Shakespeare – two words that don’t as much inspire as they do unnerve. Yet having visited the delightfully warm and humble Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell, for the Lazarus Production of Julius Caesar, it turned out to be well worth the trip.
Quite often the allure of Shakespeare to burgeoning Production companies is a perceived opportunity to take standard text and play with it. Lazarus productions succeeded not only in taking on the weight of Julius Caesar but in delivering something memorable beyond the familiar and the safe.
With the notable absence of JC himself I was more than dubious by this premise, daunted as I am by any production when Shakespeare is involved…. certain things should not be trifled with. Musicality, physical theatre and choreography are not commonly associated with a Shakespearean tragedy, yet they offered new life on an accessible scale to a production that could so easily have been trundled through rather than renewed.
This adaptation of Julius Caesar was impactful and different. At times some of the direction seemed more concerned with itself than with the text, but the attempts paid off to a large extent and any pitfalls, on balance, were worth the effort. There are aspects of Ricky Dukes direction I would question, such as the opening scene held in a Roman Baths – the background characters made slow, deliberate movements, but this distracted the eye and detracted from the scene. The artistry of the choreography ultimately undermined or upstaged the central action.
The reasons behind some of the direction could well be explained by the constraints of the space at The Blue Elephant, but I felt that some negatives were avoidable. Striking the balance between tasteful reworking and spineless duty to such hallowed text can, in many cases, be a good benchmark for the calibre of any production company, whether West End or fringe – and with that said I felt Lazarus had rightly aimed for something more.
Stand-out performances include the vocal qualities of Sophie Ash (Calphurnia), the stunning monologue by Robin Holden (Mark Antony), the interplay between Portia (Elana Martin) and Brutus (Matthew Wade) and the bespectacled Cassius (Steven Rodgers) whose hand gestures distracted at times, but whose delivery was impassioned and at many times a driving force in maintain momentum in some areas where direction functioned over the textual interpretation.
The Blue Elephant Theatre is a perfect example of the dearly-felt and the hard-sweated for. A charming venue run by caring, down-to-earth people with a passion that is evident in the banter and chat in any of my interactions of the night. The pairing of The Blue Elephant Theatre and Lazarus Productions is easy to understand if only on the basis of this one production.
Whilst I question the physical absence of Caesar, I love the bravado. Fringe theatre exists because good people have strong ideas and the willingness to develop a text and take it somewhere new. You don’t have to love it, but you should admire it – this production, this venue, both are worth the visit and both are worth your critique. Evocative and daring, different not just for its own sake, but one interpretation where the risk was worth taking.
Julius Caesar runs until 7th November at The Blue Elephant Theatre, 59a Bethwin Rd Camberwell SE5
8pm, Tickets from £10.