Left – Colin Moody and Kate Mulvany. Photo – Joe-Sabljak
44BC – Julius Caesar is assassinated. The Roman Republic, already in decline, ended. The Roman Empire, a secret dream of many would-be emperors, began. Between the two, uneasy alliances, war, and chaos.
1599 – Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is (probably) first performed. Elizabeth I, the Queen, is ancient by contemporary standards, and has no heir. Succession – and the future as many English people might know it – is unsteady, unstable. A time in flux.
2011 – The future is still up in the air. Change – personal, political, societal – is a constant preoccupation. No one knows, exactly, anywhere in the world, what will happen next.
These are the themes – change, chaos, fear, politics – that Bell Shakespeare’s production of Julius Caesar understands so well. The human animal may have changed its society a thousand times between 44BC and 2011, but it has not changed its nature. Some things are universal. There will always, always, be politicians. It is a credit not only to Shakespeare, writing 1500 years after the events, but this production, that these unchanging themes are articulated so well.
Special credit for this must go to Anna Cordingley’s set design, which was deceptive in its simplicity. A simple pillar rises above a stage littered with seats which, for this ex-public servant, evoked senate estimates. The pillar represents Rome, and, moreover, democracy. At the beginning of the play, when Caesar is dictator (a position which, despite his misuse of it, was a valid one in the Roman republic), the bottom of the pillar is surrounded with scaffolding. When Caesar is killed and society descends further and further into chaos (and further and further towards the future tyranny of Octavius, who would grow up to be Augustus Caesar), more and more scaffolding is built up around it, until Rome is wholly unrecognisable. It is a visually striking, powerful symbol that resonates strongly throughout the whole show.
Another idea that I thought this production articulated particularly well was the notion of rhetoric – of words being able to change the beliefs of an entire community. I was unsure about the microphone device this show used in the first act, but in the second act, where actors used the microphones to represent the crowd’s reaction to the orations of first Brutus and later Antony, it made a lot more sense. Oration was practically a sport in antiquity, a profession for Shakespeare, and words are still something that are bent and twisted to shape and obscure meaning in the political sphere today. I must particularly commend Daniel Frederiksen as Mark Antony here – his delivery of the famous ‘friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears’ soliloquy was superb, and his nonchalance at the end of it, where he casually wonders whether his speech (which was, we now realise, carefully calculated) has had the desired effect on its audience, was chilling.
The other standout performance for me was Kate Mulvany as Cassius. Much has been made of the fact that a woman plays Cassius in this production – I’m not going to elaborate on it here. I dislike the inevitable critical politicisation of the female body that goes on whenever a woman takes on a traditionally male role in a Shakespeare play. As a performer (gender-neutral), I found her amazingly compelling and whenever she was on stage, I could not take my eyes off her. Colin Moody, who was very credible as Brutus, could not match her in charisma. Mulvany has done an outstanding job in this production both as Cassius and as dramaturg.
This is not the most faithful performance of Shakespeare’s play ever – several characters are conflated, sometimes detrimentally (I found the Cinna mix-up a little underdone, for example) – but that does not mean it is not excellent. For a timely, topical meditation on power, politics, and rhetoric, you can go no further than Bell Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Bell Shakespeare presents
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Peter Evans
Venue: Playhouse, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 25 October – 26 November, 2011
Bookings: 02 9250 7777 | sydneyoperahouse.com