Bell Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar Review –

not worth the price of the ticket

★½

(Bell Shakespeare 2018)

What piece of theatre could be more apt in this time of national political upheaval? It’s themes resonate with the political landscape not just here in Australia, but around the world. For me, watching the play foreshadowed our own leadership challenge and swift overthrow. Cast Tony Abbot and Peter Dutton as Casca and Cassius, and Scott Morrison as loyal Mark Antony, and there you go; our Caesar was doomed. The only character missing from our modern political scene is a Brutus, ‘The noblest Roman of all.’

In this at least Bell Shakespeare’s recent production of Julius Caesar, met their artistic goal, ‘To use Shakespeare as Australians – as a vehicle for self scrutiny and recognition: to make work that is of us, for us and about us.’ If one takes the time to look at their mission statement, this touring production fits neatly into every one of their stated goals. Having sat through the performance, I feel that their vision needs a rethink.

Entering the circle for this long awaited treat, my expectations were high. Bell Shakespeare messing with history and bringing us an African American Caesar, I could not wait.

I wish that the reality was as engaging as the real life drama that unfolded on the Australian political stage shortly thereafter. Sadly, the production lacked punch.

Director James Evans’ inclusive colour and gender blind approach to casting is to be applauded.  It can work spectacularly well. Who can forget director Tim Supple’s 2008 ‘Indian Midsummer Nights Dream’, or Cate Blanchett as Richard II in Benedict Andrews’ 2009 ‘The War of The Roses’ which featured at successive Perth Summer Festivals? 

In this instance, I question whether this adherence to political correctness has served the play well. Kenneth Ransom, a black American actor of considerable skill, with film, stage and opera credits to his name, lacks conviction as Caesar. He has a light tenor voice, which simply wasn’t suited to the gravitas of the role. It was often swallowed within the confines of the auditorium, and the Heath Leger is not a particularly big theatre.

The casting of Sara Zwangobani as Mark Anthony could work in a modern context, given that women are now serving and attaining high rank within the armed forces. However, the fact that we are dealing here with a real historical character, makes the task of selling the gender swap far harder. She lacked the authoritativeness required and was not aided at all by the designers choice of costume for her. The skin tight, geometrically striped dress was an attention grabber for all the wrong reasons, distracting the eye from everything else that was happening on the podium. Evans’ choice to break for the intermission in the midst of the ‘friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech, further stripped her performance of power.

Nick Simpson-Deeks as Cassius delivered his lines at a crawl. Whilst his diction was clear as a bell, this was sleep inducing. The need to write this review was the only thing that kept me from walking out at the interval.

Ivan Donato, playing Brutus and Ghenoa Gela as Casca gave the best performances by far but were not enough to lift this offering of a well known play out of mediocrity.

With a touring production, one expects a pared back set and costuming. Here we had an interesting oblong scaffolding rig on wheels centre stage that served as podium, billboard and a structure from which to hang tarpaulins. This industrial look fit with the choice of modern clothes for the cast made by designer Anna Tregolan. Caesar was given a half-length cape that added a spark of flare to an otherwise bland clothing concept. This added to Ransom’s performance. My frustration with the choices Tregolan made in terms of costuming stems from the general lack of presence the garments lent their wearers, apart from Zwangobani’s dreadful dress. These characters are powerful and rich. Yet we have Brutus attired in a rumpled cream business shirt open at the neck, which is haphazardly tucked into a pair of similarly scruffy looking beige pants. Where is his pride, his stature as a politician?

If you love good Shakespeare, however it comes, leave your wallet in your pocket this time.

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