Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, adapted by Peter Evans and Kate Mulvaney for touring by Bell Shakespeare. Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, August 2-13, 2011.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Shakespeare is as constant as the Northern Star, and this production proves it.
Working in generic modern dress, Peter Evans directs this neatly trimmed adaptation so that we see, by implication, the effects not so much of the non-violent Julia Gillard removal of Kevin Rudd (despite the usual claims of political stabbing-in-the-back) but more closely what the effects of Tony Abbott and the Barnaby Joyce Tea Party are likely to be.
The question for me about Julius Caesar has always been what to do with the second half. Up to the murder and Antony’s ears speech there’s no problem with dramatic tension – in fact, up to Cinna’s mistaken slaughter by the maddened crowd. But armies wandering around Philippi – all a bit ho-hum.
But not in this production. The touring company has grown from Bell Shakespeare’s education component. With only ten actors to do all the parts and everything else from set manoeuvering to an amazing scaffold construction, the old theatrical dictum that constraints lead to discipline is played out before our very eyes. I trust they had the correct rigger’s tickets!
They certainly had the right stylistic ticket. Combining acting the text with fully developed Stanislavski intentions with a choreographed design in movement, set within a Brechtian conception to alienate us from sentimental emotion was exactly right for this play.
Actors came on stage, then signalled the moment that they walked into the acting space, and out again. So simple – but so effective. Actors could switch roles when they spoke through a standing microphone; or could make part of a private conversation suddenly public.
The result was a close-knit ensemble of performers each equally playing their parts in a complex jigsaw puzzle. Placing the interval at precisely the halfway point, freezing the action as the first murderous blows were happening, gave us the motivation to return after champagne and coffee to find out how everything would fit together after this.
And what an ending. “Hold then my sword, and turn away thy face, While I do run upon it …. Caesar, now be still: I kill’d not thee with half so good a will.” Fade to black. None of Shakespeare’s “Who is this man” etc etc. We don’t need to see Brutus fall. We know what he will do and our imaginations fill in the blank, in silence. This is real theatre, leaving the audience to applaud in a peculiarly muted kind of way, even through two curtain calls. There is a humility here, on the part of the performers and flowing over the audience, in recognising what Shakespeare has done.
He has shown us the inevitable unintended consequences of extreme destructive political action. In Shakespeare’s day, Anthony Burgess suggests, the 1599 banning – indeed the burning “in good Nazi style” – of books about English history gave Will good reason to turn to more ancient times for a cautionary tale. Then ironically, only 23 years after his death, republicans murdered a king in England. They did things in reverse, having the civil war first, then executing the king, with Oliver Cromwell the “Lord Protector” in Parliament until he died in 1658. The monarchy was restored (and Cromwell’s body was dug up, hung in chains and beheaded) – and it must be said in the following century a compromise was reached to begin the establishment of today’s limited monarchy.
As I write, I am reading Jack Waterford in today’s Canberra Times (The Tony Abbott Tea Party, August 3, 2011 p.11). Of the US Tea Party, he writes “For this anti-party, the mission is not seeking the best possible outcome in the circumstances, but resistance and purity….For Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott must seem much the same. As she complains, he simply won’t accept the verdict of the umpire – the electorate – last year. He acts as if he was cheated from his rightful place at the head of government…. Like the Tea Party his campaigning style has been focused on the extremes and on massive oversimplification.”
Waterford concludes, though, that if Gillard can get the carbon tax up and running, as she has the power to do with a majority in both houses, “There’s a very good chance that this would expose Abbott’s hollowness, his opportunism, and even some of the extremism of his remarks. Tea Parties, as with their American predecessor Know-Nothing Parties, never win." http://www.canberratimes.com.au/news/opinion/editorial/general/waterford-the-tony-abbott-tea-party/2246566.aspx
Just as Cassius and even the honest patriot Brutus could never win. And just consider the parlous state the Roman polity ended up in, as Antony worked to make Octavius become the emperor Augustus. What damage will the Tea Parties inflict on us all?
So, in my view, Shakespeare’s star still shines, lighting up our understanding, and I thank Bell Shakespeare for it.