Newcomers will need to read the play in advance: Julius Caesar, at the Globe, reviewed

4 June 2022

9:00 AM

4 June 2022

9:00 AM

Julius Caesar

Shakespeare’s Globe, in rep until 10 September

Two Palestinians Go Dogging

Royal Court Theatre

Some things are done well in the Globe’s new Julius Caesar. The assassination is a thrilling spectacle. Ketchup pouches concealed inside Caesar’s costume explode bloodily with each dagger blow and the conspirators are doused in dripping scarlet gore. During the assault, Caesar fights back and very nearly survives. Highly realistic. Afterwards, his statue is toppled and rolled off the stage in a subtle echo of Colston’s ducking in Bristol docks.

The crowd relished every minute of this pacy, high-energy show even though the visuals are wildly confusing. Brutus (Anna Crichlow) is a lesbian who sports a beige pashmina, a white T-shirt and a fetching gold turban. She looks like the deputy chairperson at a seminar about dolphins. Her wife, Portia, enters from the bath wearing a shower cap and a slinky emerald robe. It’s not clear why ancient Rome is being taken over by these fragrant and well-scrubbed lovers.

The plot against Caesar is the brainchild of Cassius (Charlotte Bate – possibly a third lesbian), who looks about 23 but claims to be a contemporary of the 56-year-old autocrat. She recalls challenging Caesar to a cross-Tiber swim during their years as junior army officers, and when he started to drown she had to haul him out. How? She’s half his size. And it’s clear that this Baywatch moment happened 30 years earlier – long before she was born. Fans who know and love the text will enjoy the production despite these eccentricities but newcomers will have to read it in advance. Which defeats the point of producing it.

Wilful errors of casting and costume are commonplace nowadays even though they force the audience to work harder to understand the show. That’s probably the idea. It’s a common delusion among the overeducated that high culture has to involve pain. The more it hurts, the more profound it must be. That’s why subsidised playhouses are full of pompous, unsmiling brainboxes while the commercial theatre attracts fun-lovers and free thinkers. Intellectuals don’t actually enjoy anything.

Two Palestinians Go Dogging is a bit of a head-scrambler. The show is narrated by a hectoring pest, Reem, who forces the crowd to clap in unison, to stamp their feet and to put their hands on their heads.

It’s like nursery school. Reem’s bullied husband, Sayeed, opens his dictionary and defines ‘intifada’, ‘revenge’ and ‘scared’ for us. Then a half-naked dancer demonstrates the meaning of ‘conflict’ through the medium of ballet.

Reem maintains her aggressive rhetoric throughout the play’s three-hour running-time, and when not bickering with Sayeed, she berates the crowd for failing to learn Arabic. And she blames the Royal Court’s publicists for attracting too few Palestinian spectators.

The production treats the audience like bored kids who need to be distracted constantly with gunfire, drone strikes, flashing lights and smoke bombs.

Somewhere in this muddled wreck lies a story about two girls, one Arab, one Israeli, who die needlessly on the West Bank. Their souls meet in heaven and they start to fight each other. Gosh, that’s depressing. And the narration is glacially slow. It takes 90 minutes to tell us that two girls have died. We learn in the second half that Neem, the angry bigot, and her pathetic husband have recently lost a child in violent circumstances. Yet it’s hard to care because their personalities are so charmless and grating.

The author, Sami Ibrahim, creates more problems by setting the action 20 years from now, in 2043, with a zombified ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu still governing Israel. How did that happen? ‘They resurrected him,’ explains Neem with a snarl. ‘And his reanimated corpse became prime minister.’ This crazy sci-fi twist makes everything daft and weightless. A competent producer would have insisted on setting the play in the present day but competent producers are rare at the Royal Court.

Halfway through the second act, the story grinds to a complete halt. Neem is handed a letter from the author (a surreal device used by Woody Allen in the 1960s), which she reads out on stage. Ibrahim confesses that he’s never been to Palestine, can’t speak Arabic and has no idea how to develop the story.

It’s an astonishing admission. At least he has the courage to admit his failings. But what does this say about the Royal Court? They hired a playwright who can’t write a play and made his incompetence the subject of the second act. Are they trying to emulate the RMT, which exists to demonstrate its unwillingness to run a train network?

Since the Court’s managers can’t produce drama properly they should resign and let the site become a centre for Palestinian refugees. Mind you, if they’ve seen this garbage, they won’t come back in a hurry.

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