Wharf 1 Theatre, November 19
Julius Caesar, the man, is said to have suffered 23 stab wounds. Julius Caesar, the play, has suffered thousands more. Like Coriolanus and The Tempest, it’s favoured by those keen to stamp an ideology on Shakespeare, spurred on by the politics of dictatorship versus democracy and self-interest versus the general good lying at the play’s heart. Four years ago a New York performance styled Caesar as Trump, which was equally cute and provocative, and, like Kip Williams’ striking Sydney Theatre Company production, partly distorted the play’s intent. That’s hardly a crime, because it’s art, not some bible. Yet, like building a house on uneven foundations, one distortion leads to another, and soon the whole edifice is tottering.
Unlike history, Shakespeare’s play clouds the scale of Caesar’s ambition, and therefore cloaks in ambiguity the assassins’ motives. Casca thinks Caesar craved the crown offered by Mark Antony, but Casca is a rascal. Cassius is sure of it, but he’s seething with jealousy for his one-time friend. Brutus is swayed to agree, but Brutus is delusional – about his place in history and Cassius’ being “the last of all the Romans”, and therefore quite possibly about the imperative to eliminate Caesar. When he sees Caesar’s ghost (another delusion) the latter identifies himself as Brutus’ “evil spirit”. Why is all this important? Because if Caesar is merely a rapacious totalitarian and Brutus entirely pure of motive we have the bare dish without the rich sauce.
Putting politics and intent to one side, let’s applaud the sheer boldness of Williams’ production. Wharf 1 is configured in the round for the first time, creating a theatrical crucible with the gas turned up. Secondly, Williams uses just three actors: Geraldine Hakewill as Antony and Casca, Ewen Leslie as Cassius, Caesar and Octavius, and Zahra Newman as Brutus. Both cast and text have been slashed accordingly, partially narrowing and intensifying the focus. Finally, there’s Williams’ trademark love of video, here with the three actors filming each other with smartphones, and the audience seeing the images on a four-sided screen. This has some potent moments, notably the extreme close-ups, but, compared with the triumph of Williams’ The Picture of Dorian Gray, the videoing is too often distracting: you want to watch the live actors, but your eyes are continually drawn to the screen in a winless tug of war.
With the smartphones also deployed to replicate the lacerating social media dimension of contemporary politics, the emphasis on their use comes to overshadow the actual delivery of the lines, so some of the greatest verse in the canon is squandered. Leslie wastes Cassius’ “he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus” speech, as does Newman Brutus’ “It must be by his death” soliloquy and Hakewill Calpurnia’s phantasmagorical “A lioness hath whelped in the streets”, now delivered by Antony.
Further undoing the drama, Williams has Brutus and Cassius falling about laughing after assassinating Caesar, which is challenging to reconcile with their characters, and the Act Four dust-up between the pair is too flaccid. Hakewill is at her best mourning Caesar, but the “Friends, Romans, countryman” epic is undercooked, and quickly dialled to “modernity”, with new text incorporating rhetoric from Churchill, Trump, Clinton, Howard, Obama, Morrison and more. While making its point about the unchanging nature of politics, it also feels laboured. By the time Antony becomes an on-screen character in a computer game the production has largely abandoned illuminating a play that tries desperately to illuminate humanity.
Until December 23.