Sunday, October 14, 2018

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare National Tour at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, October 12 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 12
 Photos: Prudence Upton
Kenneth Ransom as Julius Caesar
Bell Shakespeare 2018

Director – James Evans; Set & Costume Designer – Anna Tregloan; Lighting Designer – Verity Hampson; Composer & Sound Designer – Nate Edmondson; Movement & Fight Director – Scott Witt; Voice Coach – Jess Chambers
Julius Caesar – Kenneth Ransom    Calpurnia / Octavius – Emily Havea
Brutus – James Evans (usually Ivan Donato)        Portia – Maryanne Fonceca
Casca / Messala – Ghenoa Gela    Cassius – Nick Simpson-Deeks
Trebonius / Soothsayer / Pindarus – Neveen Hanna
Devius Cinna / Lucilius – Russell Smith
Mark Antony – Sara Zwangobani

The movable set for Julius Caesar,
Bell Shakespeare, 2018

I see this production as a ‘mash up’.  I’m not sure what Gens X, Y or Z mean by this term – something like a deliberately untidy iconoclasm, with modern fantasy highlights, in a dressed down rough guide to the human universe.

For me, of the A generation even earlier than the B-B, the missing elements of unity of time and place mean I miss a neat development of an emotional through-line.  But you have to admit that Shakespeare himself, I suspect, was struggling to tie this story together.  The second half can seem interminable after the high drama of the murder and Antony’s ‘lend me your ears’ speech.

So I need to review Bell Shakespeare’s ‘diversity’ production with several audiences in mind.  It begins with Torres Strait Islander woman Ghenoa Gela, in costume as a commoner ready for Shakespeare’s opening street scene, speaking directly to the audience about recognition of the Ngunnawal land on which the performance would take place, as a formal request, in the traditional way, to the elders.  The audience unanimously endorsed her speech with applause.

Then, in Scene 1 Rome.  A Street.,  Flavius, a woman instead of Shakespeare’s male character, orders the commoners home, and Shakespeare’s text is under way.  Ghenoa plays a great commoner with all the kind of humour and body language we recognise as literally Indigenous to Australia.  Her acting skills add to her dance skills, as I have previously noted in her own show My Urrwai in the Sydney Festival (January 19, 2018).  She is a treasure on stage, turning her hand to the role of the first to stab Caesar, as Casca.

Julius Caesar under attack
Bell Shakespeare 2018

By that time we had found ourselves wondering about a lean and hungry looking Caesar, of African descent, whose voice no longer commands attention or seems to justify the clamour of the crowd – is this because, as Cassius tells Brutus in the story of failing to swim the Tiber, the man is physically weakened and on his way out?  He certainly has lost all strategic common sense, stupidly ignoring Calpurnia’s warnings of the danger of appearing in public at his rival Pompey’s tomb.

Then we find that Sara Zwangobani’s Antony is almost some kind of rival to Calpurnia.  Maybe she loves Caesar more than Caesar’s wife does.  It seemed this way when, after her terrific speech manipulating the crowd over Caesar’s dead body, she collapses in tears, drawing aside the shroud and kissing him.  (And is there something to be said about the African connection here?)

Sara Zwangobani as Antony
Bell Shakespeare 2018

The woman, Antony, entirely changes the conventional view of Shakespeare’s play – that the warmonger male Antony cynically uses Caesar’s murder to gain ascendancy, taking Octavius along with him.  But wait, there’s more!  Octavius is now a woman like Antony herself, opposing in more clever warfare, the men – Cassius and Brutus – and winning the day, while the males suitably commit suicide.  The one is a typical young boy risktaker imagining his day of freedom – written literally in Caesar’s blood across a huge banner; while the other, the more sensibly cautious, realises how naïve his political theory, and his military strategy, is.

Now, for modern millenials there is much to discuss in this new mashed-up avocado on toast.  It’s rather the story of Brutus on toast.  His great mistake is a warning for risktakers: before taking action, check out all the possible consequences.  Use the pill-testing facilities at the big music gig.

The message is, Don’t Use Ice.

And if you’re the old style man, sexist and full of self-importance, then watch out for the women – they’ll get you in the end because that’s how it should be.  Just ask Portia, strongly played by Maryanne Fonceca:

“No, my Brutus; you have some sick offence within your mind, / Which, by the right and virtue of my place, / I ought to know of.”

Although she kneels, note her pointed accusation: “Dwell I but in the suburbs / Of your good pleasure?  If it be no more, / Portia is Brutus’ harlot, not his wife.”

How’s that for Shakespeare’s relevance in modern times?  And praise must be given for the clarity of meaning that Bell’s actors achieved in speaking Shakespeare’s lines.

So what can I say, being born before the Baby Boomers in the early stages of a World War II even more to be condemned than Antony and Octavius’ defeat of the Roman Republic’s Brutus and Cassius (so that Octavius called himself Augustus as the first Emperor of Rome)?  That this production was a bit too messy for me, needed a more tidy design and direction, and probably should have kept the men in togas so they looked like Romans to suit Shakespeare’s language?

Well, maybe – but that really is for you to decide when they ring the foyer bells for Shakespeare’s  Julius Caesar at the Canberra Theatre till October 20, and then in Sydney at the Opera House from October 23 to November 25.