Q Theatre, October 5


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The assassination. Photo: Prudence Upton.

Staging Julius Caesar necessitates using some of the finest verse in Shakespeare’s canon to paper over the play’s structural and narrative fault-lines. Enthral an audience with this verse, dispersed between Antony, Brutus, Cassius and Calphurnia, and the other dimension, the politics of backstabbing, are – as we know! – timeless.

Alas, this production merely amplifies the fault-lines.

Blessedly director James Evans (for Bell Shakespeare) sought to establish no specific modern parallels. These shout themselves loudly enough when, for instance, no conspirator can answer why Caesar had to die, beyond the rather fluffy concept of “ambition” – exactly what made him one of Rome’s most ruthlessly efficient generals and leaders.

The production’s most glaring flaws are stacked in Acts I and II. From the assassination onwards the quality marginally improves, but let’s be blunt: the delivery of Shakespeare in this country is generally woeful, and much of this was worse. Great speeches such as Cassius’s “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus…” and Calphurnia’s “A lioness hath whelped in the streets;/and graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead…” had their meaning mangled, beauty pulverised and power crushed. Maryanne Fonceca so mauled Portia’s gorgeous supplications to Brutus that it was no wonder he ignored her.

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Kenneth Ransom as Caesar’s ghost. Photo: Prudence Upton.

The play boasts countless lines that can transport the meanest spirit. Instead more weight was given to the fatuous concept of “relevance”, to ensemble choreography and to set manipulation than to mastering the verse. These are weird priorities: the play takes flight on its verse or remains earthbound.

And it needs that help. The titular hero is dead before half-way, the potential Tragedy of Brutus is never motivationally enunciated beyond the base refuge of “patriotism”, and Antony comes from nowhere (presumably bars and beds) to loom over the second half. About whom are we supposed to care? Certainly not the self-impressed Caesar, the embittered Cassius nor the faceless, ascetic Octavius.

Evans’s gender-blind casting allows Sara Zwangobani to carve out an Antony that is the production’s most interesting characterisation. She grieves over Caesar’s body as if they were lovers, and, at its best, her “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” oration swells and ebbs with symphonic grandeur.

Shakespeare presents endless talk of Caesar’s greatness, but writes little of it into the character. The actor must compensate within less than 150 lines, while also showing credible cause for the conspirators’ bloodlust. Like many before him, Kenneth Ransom fails to find the tricky blend of gravitas and charisma. Ivan Donato initially presents a Brutus more rustic than noble; more anguished than analytical in his decision to join the conspiracy. But once the dogs of war have been let slip he grows in his portrayal, and squeezes the juice from “There is a tide in the affairs of men…” Nick Simpson-Deeks slaves over the hot stove that is Cassius, also improving later. It may have been a role with more intriguing implications for a female actor than Antony or Octavius. The latter is played by Emily Havea more convincingly than her wet, whimpering Calphurnia, and the less said about the minor roles the better (including the risible transformation of the Soothsayer into a secret agent).

Evans competently directs ensemble action – the assassination, Antony’s arousal of the mob and the battle scenes (where he effectively uses Caesar’s presence not just as a ghost, but a chorus) − but little else. Anna Tregloan’s brutalist set is functional, her costumes forgettable. The production’s strongest suit is Nate Edmondson’s score, which layers in some missing drama and tension.

Julius Caesar: Sydney Opera House, October 23 to November 25.