In a dark, Gotham-like city, one woman's ultimate betrayal leads to a revolution of bloody revenge. With smoke, strobes and a cinematic soundtrack, Immersion Theatre present a big-screen blockbuster for the small stage. Although I think this young company can achieve more with this concept, the spectacle is exciting, violent and sexy.
Being immersed in the action from the moment you enter the theatre is something I always enjoy and having the cast quietly performing a range of sexual, violent and drug-enhanced experiences sets up the sordid, broken society of Rome from before you even take your seat.
The empty black-box space at the Brockley Jack studio is hardly claustrophobic but with the right amount of smoke and some clever lighting by Viktor Palfi, directors James Tobias and Roderick Morgan have created a world of shadows that seems to extend beyond the walls of the theatre with some characters disappearing from view without having to leave the space. From the beginning, with the low-life citizens indulging their primal desires within a decaying once-great city, it's clear that the noir lighting will play a role as important as Caesar herself. Although set in Rome, this could be any city and with cross-gender casting and Mad-Max-meets-vampire-chic costumes, this post-apocalyptic story could be one of our future - let alone our past.
The introduction, including some Thriller-esque dance moves by choreographer Jess Mack, certainly gets the ball rolling and the pace is great through the first half. The central role of Brutus is assertively played by Liam Mulvey. He offsets an imposing build with enough uncertainty needed to be the reluctant leader of the rebellion without seeming too weak. His sister, Cassius (Rochelle Parry), shows some inspired cross-casting which allows for a sense of female rivalry with the matriarch Caesar (Anna Bond). Although the continual smoothing of her hair becomes a little distracting, Parry's athletically slender physique and nervous mannerisms suggest someone not only capable but on the edge of violence and her dialogue with Brutus is completely engaging and well performed. James Clifford as Marc Anthony sheds almost as many tears as words in a detailed and emotional performance providing an opponent of equal command and presence to Brutus.
Special mention should go to Tom Bates as the Soothsayer who, with only a handful of lines, has created a wonderful leper-like vagabond with frosted eyeballs and infected skin. As the various Romans fall during the final act he, almost unseen on the back wall, marks photos of their faces with blood.
This is not the traditional image of a Shakespeare play and in re-inventing the wheel, you have to really push boundaries. To achieve this, there is a risk of overplaying style and losing substance and this did happen at times. In addition, the characterisations had varying levels of naturalism. Frank Teale as a camp-yet-menacing Casca and Eleanor Burke (Metellus and Octavius) both made vivid choices in the physicalities of their characters and although this fit the theme, there was something that didn't quite gel together with the others. With the exception of Brutus, a lot of the blood-soaked, stylised deaths in the second half weren't far off drifting into comedy. Even Caesar's famous last words, and thus her surprise at the betrayal, were overshadowed by the stylised action.
I felt more work had gone into opening each half than into ending them. The final moment of the show didn't deliver the punch I was looking for and I think that's an analogy for my overall impression. The director writes in the programme about a balance in how much violence and danger to communicate to the audience and I'm not sure that balance is right. This could be a perfect example of an audience member realising how desensitised to violence he is but I genuinely believe this production could go further. The opening of the second half was threatening with direct approaches from the cast and I enjoyed the dance choreography throughout but I wanted more and I think that more focus could be spent on the fight sequences. Especially obvious in slow motion, some of the cast didn't look like they'd survive ten seconds in the kinds of violence being depicted.
I did enjoy this show – and at little over an hour and a half with an interval, it certainly didn't drag. The setting and performances bring the concept to life but, not so long after the riots broke out down the road in Lewisham, Immersion will have to raise the bar to really threaten an audience with the moral of this story.