In its relentless drive for new resonances and ever more innovative ways of presenting Shakespeare, Bell Shakespeare, with this production of Julius Caesar, has finally succeeded in rendering at least one of his plays, virtually incomprehensible to anyone other than welded-on Shakespeare devotees.
Anna Tregloan’s steampunk set and op-shop costumes provides no clues as to time, place or status of the characters, and the gender-blind, double (even triple) casting, make it extremely difficult to work out who is playing which part unless a name is mentioned, reducing the play to a series of unfathomable set pieces.
James Evans, who replaced an indisposed Ivan Donato at short notice for the Canberra season, dominated the stage, physically and vocally, with a fine, well-shaped interpretation as Brutus, demonstrating how interesting the production might have been had any of the rest of the ensemble been able to match his performance. Only Nick Simpson-Deeks, a passionate and fraught Cassius, came close to challenging Evan’s dominance in their second- act exchange.
Despite his striking resemblance to Barack Obama, and robbed of any semblance of grandeur by his drab costumes and curious high-pitched vocal delivery, Kenneth Ransom was a strangely disinterested Caesar, displaying little of the qualities attributed to him by Mark Antony.
Sara Zwangobani provided the high point with her performance of Mark Antony’s famous funeral oration, which was punctuated with thundering crescendos from Nate Edmondson’s cinematic score. Although, as she addressed her friends, Romans and countrymen, standing in front of a microphone, on a tiny balcony, the thought that she might at any moment break into Don’t Cry for Me Argentina seemed a distinct possibility.
Elsewhere the tiny cast was kept busy scampering around the setting, putting up and pulling down flags and revolutionary banners, and trying unsuccessfully to convince as crowds, and a variety of characters, declaiming speeches with gestures that might have worked had they been wearing togas, but looked rather ridiculous in tee-shirts.
Those willing to puzzle over the complexities of Shakespeare’s text may find this presentation satisfying, but for others simply looking to become caught up in the grandeur and intrigue of one Shakespeare’s most famous plays, this production probably isn’t the one for them.
The Playhouse – Canberra Theatre Centre, London Circuit Canberra
Performance: Saturday 13 October 2018
Season continues to 20 October 2018
Following the Canberra season, Julius Caesar will be presented at the Sydney Opera House from 23 October 2018. For more information, visit: www.bellshakespeare.com.au for details.
Image: Bell Shakespeare presents Julius Caesar – photo by Prudence Upton
Review: Bill Stephens OAM