Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne
July 21, 2018

The political and social upheaval in ancient Rome that surrounded the assassination of Julius Caesar is compelling human drama, whether as pure history, or entertainment of the calibre of Shakespeare’s play. This minimalist production’s uneven cast doesn’t always convey the timeless drama of the Bard’s words, however, which is surprising for a company that’s surely about achieving just that.

Kenneth Ransom in Julius Caesar. Photographs © Prudence Upton

Probably first performed at the new Globe Theatre in 1599, Julius Caesar is more focused on the group of conspirators who murder him than the man himself. No sooner has the play begun, as Caesar returns in triumph to Rome, than Cassius approaches Brutus to plant the idea that the leader may be reaching for too much power, and should be assassinated for the good of the republic. Though Brutus is Caesar’s friend and ally, he soon agrees, and the deed is done. Mark Antony and Octavius remain true to Caesar even after death, and civil war erupts. The conspirators are undermined by in-fighting and, in Brutus’ case, the ghost of Caesar, and are ultimately defeated.

Directed by James Evans, Bell Shakespeare’s new production strips Julius Caesar bare. Not uncommonly, it’s cut down – to just over two hours. Numerous minor characters are erased without ill effect, but the final scenes of war become a confused race to the end. Anna Tregloan’s set is a rudimentary scaffold-like metal structure of steps, platform and frame, from which banners and tarps are hung. It’s frequently moved around the stage by the cast, whose contemporary costumes, also designed by Tregloan, are so commonplace that, if any are lost on the long national tour, replacements could be readily found off the rack. The only exceptions are Caesar’s snappy half cape, and a dress with a striking geometric pattern for Mark Antony – more on that later.

Verity Hampson’s simple lighting, subdued but for the assassination’s strobing effects, is contrasted with Nate Edmondson’s dramatic music. It verges on bombastic a couple of times, when the volume is cranked and the cast contribute by banging on the set, but overall it intrigues and enhances the play’s dark psychology. These elements are designed to make the production readily transportable and adaptable to venues in the suburbs and regional towns on the 28-stop tour, as well as approachable for a variety of audiences, right down to the everyday Australian accents.

Sara Zwangobani as Mark Anthony

Some may be puzzled by Mark Antony and several other male characters not merely played by women, but presented as females through small changes to the script, such as ‘she’ for ‘he’ and ‘woman’ for ‘man’. Typically of Shakespeare’s history plays, there are very few female characters, and minor ones at that. It makes sense in the 21st century to introduce some balance, but these gender switches rarely convince, at least in part because they are not merely characters but historical figures. Dialogue about Mark Antony’s great love for Caesar is particularly distracting in its new context.

Ultimately, convincing an audience is not about slavish devotion to Shakespeare’s script or history books, or fancy period costumes and elaborate sets. There’s no need for plummy English accents to reveal the dialogue’s power, which has stood the test of time for centuries, in all kinds of accents and even translation. It’s up to the actors, but unfortunately this very exposed cast doesn’t always convey the powerful meaning and psychology of Shakespeare’s words, leaving one only partially drawn into the drama.

Only Ivan Donato has the necessary gravitas and emotional weight throughout to capture the imagination, as he truly inhabits the conflicted Brutus. The other key players are not far behind, but conviction sometimes wavers. Kenneth Ransom’s Caesar displays a cool self-importance that is a little short on authority. Nick Simpson-Deeks is often compelling as Cassius, but takes the character’s weakness too far. Sara Zwangobani has a mountain to climb as a female Mark Antony, and reaches great heights when mourning Caesar and delivering the famous passage of persuasive oratory that turns the (hypothetical) mob. Ultimately, however, she wasn’t persuasive enough. The smaller roles are shared among a handful of actors, and some are nicely handled – Emily Havea as a swaggering young female Octavius, for example, and Ghenoa Gela’s cheekiness in Casca’s first scene. Most are bland, however, even wooden.

This production of Julius Caesar does a lot with very little, and should be well received in places where Shakespeare, indeed any kind of professional theatre, is thin on the ground. However noble an effort it may be though, Bell Shakespeare’s latest will likely disappointment regular theatre goers who expect more from a major company.

Bell Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is at the Fairfax Studio until July 28, then tours nationally until November 25