Most critics, it appears, would prefer to bury Julius Caesar, not praise it. This touring production of Shakespeare’s quintessential political drama by Bell Shakespeare Company is a conglomeration of misguided choices, displacing the play’s inherent intrigue with audience bewilderment over set design, costumes and gender substitution. Director, James Evans seems so intent on producing a radically different staging that the story itself becomes secondary.
The play is a more or less historically accurate retelling of Roman emperor Julius Caesar’s assassination at the hands of Roman senators led by the jealous Cassius and reluctantly joined by Brutus, Caesar’s one time buddy, who is conned into believing this is for the greater good.
As with all of Shakespeare’s work, Julius Caesar shows how uncannily prescient The Bard was in his writing. There are eerie similarities between machinations in the Roman senate and what’s been going on in Canberra and Washington. A recent infamous American production of the work even had Caesar played as a caricature of Donald Trump.
Evans declines to make any overt political/social references, but this omission becomes distractingly conspicuous. What’s more baffling are the “costumes” – everyday casual wear that makes it feel like you’re watching a rehearsal. An obtrusive musical score accompanies key scenes, sometimes obliterating the dialogue. The set consists of a large wooden billboard frame mounted on wheels so that it can be freely repositioned. It also serves as a podium and incidental scenery. In the opening scene, the billboard features a large poster of black actor Kenneth Ransom as Caesar, standing with his arm extended before him in front of a rich green and blue pastural scene, looking like an ad for butter. Ransom, alas, lacks the charisma to make us feel anything much regarding Caesar’s assassination. Some male characters have been converted to female, notably Casca, played with delightful cheek by Ghenoa Gela, and Mark Antony played by Sara Zwangobani who does well with what ends up being an ambiguous and incongruent character. The stand out performances are delivered by Nick Simpson-Deeks as Cassius and James Lugton, who does an astounding job having filled in at the last minute in the role of Brutus. These two really drive the production and make it palatable.
There are a number of options in Sydney at the moment to satisfy your Shakespeare craving – this one might fall short.
Until Nov 25. Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point. $35-$95+b.f. Tickets & Info: www.sydneyoperahouse.com
Reviewed by Rita Bratovich.