Caesar Fails to Conquer, Icy Lovers Melt on U.K. Stage

'Julius Caesar'
Anna Christy and a Fabulous Beast dancer in "Julius Caesar" at the English National Opera. Keegan-Dolan is best known as a choreographer. Photographer: Robert Workman/English National Opera via Bloomberg

In the battle of Zela, Julius Caesar came, saw, and conquered. At the English National Opera, he suffers a rather different fate.

Handel’s “Julius Caesar” -- about the famous Roman emperor helping his lover Cleopatra regain her throne -- is a notoriously tricky piece to stage.

The plot is slow and proceeds via a series of dramatically static arias. These work best when the characters are vividly presented, their relationships full of detail, and their aims and conflicts clear.

Michael Keegan-Dolan, a choreographer directing his first opera, is predictably wrong-footed by the conventions of the baroque lyric stage.

He adds dancers, unremarkably choreographed, to about half of the arias, and forgets about the characterization of the singers. For the most part they stand still, center stage, and look like mannequins.

“My heart with joy doth glow,” sings Cleopatra (Anna Christy), displaying all the glowing joy of someone working night-shifts at a supermarket checkout.

It all takes place in front of an enormous curved wall made of ugly chipboard, which provides little sense of location. A couple of tables and metal chairs look like they’ve come from the bargain bay of IKEA.

Stuffed Crocodile

A stuffed crocodile is thrown in too. I think it’s a visual metaphor to suggest hunters and their prey. It ends up being prodded, stroked and poked in various drama-school ways, as the performers try to get some use out of one of the few props.

The singing is good, without being great. Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo has a warm sound which changes into a bark when he goes into his chest register. Anna Christy is a sweet, dull Cleopatra.

Daniela Mack plays the male role of Sesto as a girl, which causes confusion in the libretto and adds nothing to the drama. Still, she has an attractive richness of voice.

Conductor Christian Curnyn creates some lovely sounds in the pit. In a concert, that would be great. In a three-hour, 45-minute staging, it’s no compensation for the torpor on stage. Rating: **.

Hollinghurst’s Berenice

Booker prize-winning novelist Alan Hollinghurst has produced a new blank verse translation Jean Racine’s “Berenice” (1670), currently playing at the Donmar Warehouse.

It’s a formal love-versus-duty piece, set in ancient Rome. The emperor Titus rejects his beloved Berenice, a queen of Palestine, because the populace will not tolerate a foreign Empress.

The characters express their emotions in majestic, sculptured phrases (“fire seen through ice” is the way one writer memorably described the effect) which Hollinghurst translates with lucidity and simplicity.

The same adjectives can’t be applied to Josie Rourke’s underpowered in-the-round production. The set is a sandpit (Berenice is from Palestine, see?) with a staircase rising out of it. There’s no sense of Rome’s grandeur, or anything to help us understand the forces making Titus reject his lover. Throw in some costumes which ride up and wrinkle in all the wrong places, and you’ve got a production in which the emotional stakes are so low you can barely register them.

The actors wander around the sandpit doing their best with the verse. Only Anne-Marie Duff (Berenice) rises to the challenge, and presents a soul in torment. Neither Titus (Stephen Campbell Moore) nor his rival Antiochus (Dominic Rowan) match her. Rating: **.

Ayckbourn’s Chorus

Alan Ayckbourn’s 1984 comedy “A Chorus of Disapproval” tells the story of a shy, naive widower called Guy who joins an amateur production of “The Beggar’s Opera.”

After a series of misunderstandings about a proposed property speculation, he is unwittingly bribed with the lead role of Macheath and becomes the lover of two women at once.

It’s a slyly amusing piece, given an efficient and straightforward production, set in 1984, by Trevor Nunn. If there are no belly laughs, there are plenty of chuckles.

The weak spot is Nigel Harman (Guy), whose presentation of the hero’s naivety verges on the implausibly imbecilic. Never mind: a strong supporting cast, including Ashley Jensen (“Extras”) and Rob Brydon make up for it. Rating: ***.

Lewis’s Soldiers

“Our Boys” by Jonathan Lewis, is set in the same year in a military hospital. Six ill or injured soldiers share their thoughts about the army and life. They talk about sex, class, the injustices of authority, Northern Ireland. The humor is laddish and rough-and-ready.

It adds up to a series of sketches, and not a play. A plot device about the discovery of an illegal beer drinking session is thin, overstretched, and cursorily dispatched.

A play needs conflict, and here all we get are endless minor skirmishes between people who are too similar. If the playwright had dramatized any contrary points of view, especially in the scenes about the injustice of authority, there might have been hope. As it is, it feels like background research for a play, rather than a play itself.

A very good cast, including Laurence Fox and Arthur Darvill, make the disappointment the greater. Rating: **.

“Julius Caesar” is in repertoire at ENO, London Coliseum, Saint Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4ES, until Nov. 2. Information: or +44-871-911-0200.

“Berenice” is at the Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, WC2H 9LX, until Nov. 24. The principal sponsor is Barclays Plc. Information: or +44-844-871-7624. ‘ “A Chorus of Disapproval” is at the Harold Pinter, 6 Panton Street, SW1Y 4DN, to Jan. 5, 2013. Information: +44-844-871-7615,

“Our Boys” is at the Duchess Theatre until Dec 15. Information: or +44-844-412-4659.

What the Stars Mean:
*****     Excellent
****      Very good
***       Average
**        Mediocre
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market and Elin McCoy on wine.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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