Of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Julius Caesar is the one that takes to a contemporary reading best. This is what makes it so affecting as a piece of theatre. What’s more tragic than seeing a four hundred-year-old play – based on a two thousand-year-old story – about political insurgency, civil war and betrayal remain as relevant now as it was when it was first performed?
But attempts to emphasise its relevance have failed as often as they’ve succeeded. In 2017, a New York production put its Caesar in an orange wig and a red tie as a ‘subtle’ nod to a Trump presidency. Sydney Theatre Company’s 2022 production concluded with a montage of speeches from contemporary political figureheads and a Fortnite-inspired simulation.
So what does the authoritarian Caesar have to tell us in 2023? In the programme notes for MSC Studio’s newest production, director Richard Murphet describes Julius Caesar as ‘more than any other play of its time… a drama of the people: the workers, the street cleaners, the servants, the poets, the soldiers caught up in this battle that is not of their own making’.
Donald Trump’s mugshot might be going viral but gone are the days when politics, and political activism, could be consigned to one single figurehead. The head of the snake still exists, but our eyes are now on the writhing body behind it. A cost-of-living crisis, a Labor government indifferent to a nationwide rental disaster. Wars might be made in palaces, but they are being fought in the streets.
In this case, the streets are the atmospheric surrounds of fortyfivedownstairs. Littered in black and gold confetti, the basement-like space is a site of celebration initially: the epicentre of a party that introduces us to this production’s impressive 16-strong cast.
A chorus of voices and bodies rush through towering metal poles (set design by Tony-award winning Dale Ferguson is unsurprisingly striking) hailing the strident Caesar (the authoritative Hunter Perske). In the shadows, Cassius (Mark Wilson) waits to plant the seed of insurgency in the mind of the noble Brutus (Matthew Connell).
Melbourne Shakespeare Company has a reputation for larger-than-life productions and its characteristically bombastic style serves it well during the first half of this production. Murphet takes pains to include his talented ensemble cast in most scenes.
Initially, their presence – either as a chorus of victorious screams off-stage or a rush of bodies in matching jodhpurs and riding boots running from a sudden storm – inject the production with a frenetic energy and crowdedness that adds to the suspense leading toward Caesar’s assassination.
Likewise, Wilson plays the scheming Cassius with a near-melodramatic intensity that amplifies the stakes of the central murder plot. The quieter Connell struggles to match Wilson’s magnetism, but finds an endearing softness in Brutus’s later monologues.
Natasha Herbert’s Marc Antony, meanwhile, brims with power and authority throughout. In her hands, Antony’s infamous Act Three monologue feels dangerous, flammable; her thinly veiled anger and indignation fuel to light the fire of rebellion in the people of Rome.
But this is where the production loses its footing. Julius Caesar is a top-heavy script. Its second half can be easily overshadowed by the high stakes and breakneck momentum of its tightly wound beginning. This production struggles to resolve this weakness. To signal the second half, actors tear down a yellow tarp to reveal a vacuous corner of the space that the production never makes use of.
Hidden gems in the ensemble cast – Mark Yeates offers much needed comedic relief as Casca and Annabelle Tudor shines in supporting roles – are underutilised. In early scenes, Michelle Perera breathes life into the often thankless role of Calpurnia, but a moment in the show’s second half when she silently walks on stage in funeral black only to depart unacknowledged by anyone was a near-comical oddity.
In general, ensemble members are too often relegated to stalking the action from upstage in sequences that run too long, or frozen in an under-lit army-style tableau that grows stale. When Genevieve Fry’s military-style drum roll first appears to underscore this tableau it feels electric, but it is soon sapped of dramatic stakes through overuse.
Performances, too, start to feel repetitive. Audiences can be quickly exhausted by back-to-back screaming matches or fraught performance styles that attempt to re-tread the same emotional beats. Stand out moments in the second act – Brutus’s death, for instance, or a mob-style murder – are lost in the fray.
It’s a shame to see MSC Studios struggle to recreate the runaway success of their 2021 staging of King Lear, but this production of Julius Caesar is not a failure by any means. A talented ensemble cast and cohesive design make this an ambitious and confident production, if uneven.
For a show that needn’t do much for us to note its contemporary relevance, this production offers at least a guiding hand to land its story of power-hungry figures and empowered mobs firmly at our feet.
fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Performance: Friday 25 August 2023
Season continues to 3 September 2023
For more information, visit: www.melbourneshakespeare.com for details.
Image: Melbourne Shakespeare Company presents Julius Caesar – photo by Chelsea Neate
Review: Guy Webster