Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, Directed by James Evans. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. To Oct 20.
Julius Caesar is tricky territory, full of rhetoric and Roman history and hierarchy. It is certainly not essential to roll out the togas but finding a modern metaphor is not altogether easy. Hitler and Mussolini have had their influences on productions and I remember a certain amazement as a school student when in the 1960 BBC TV modern dress version (fine cast with Michael Goodlife as Brutus and John Laurie as Cassius) the final verbal faceoff between the opposing armies happened over battlefield radios.
But in this production there’s a slide into a much less clear visual idiom. There’s some sense of the dictator in Kenneth Ransom’s performance and he makes a very disturbing ghost. But there is not a great sense of the Roman citizens as a force full of individuals with opinions. Shakespeare’s crowds are full of people who know their own minds but who can be easily swayed.
The costumes don’t help, being modern but not very indicative of status. Some of the female characters dress up more but if you did not know the play you might be scrabbling. Brutus (director James Evans replacing Ivan Donato at short notice) and Cassius (Nick Simpson-Deeks) dress as casually as any of the citizens and Brutus’ wife Portia (Maryanne Fonceca) is in jeans and a pink cardigan.
The conspirators are a motley bunch sartorially but there’s a performance of some comic energy in Ghenoa Gela’s wisecracking Casca.
The military and political elements that usually dominate seem to fade and what remains (and is very well done by Evans and Simpson-Deeks) is the fraught friendship of Brutus and Cassius. Brutus comes to the assassination through reason; Cassius through envy. Both paths are flawed, although given his head, Cassius might well have won in battle against the arrogant young Octavian (Emily Havea) and the passionate Anthony (Sara Zwangobani).
Zwangobani’s Anthony has fire and feeling but Havea’s Octavian clearly knows how things will turn out in the long run.
Meanwhile it’s Brutus and Cassius saying goodbye for what they both sense is the last time which lingers in a production that seems to say that it’s all shadows anyway.