Kip Williams made unforgettable theatre magic with his 2020 Sydney Theatre Company production of The Picture of Dorian Gray in which he adapted Oscar Wilde’s famous novel to be performed by just one actor –  the extraordinary Eryn Jean Norvill, who played 26 roles.

He also used live and pre-recorded video in inspirational fashion on a gradually increasing number of screens to tell the story in a way that mirrored the themes of Wilde’s gothic melodrama.

Julius Caesar STC

Geraldine Hakewill, Ewen Leslie and Zahra Newman in Julius Caesar, Sydney Theatre Company. Photo © Daniel Boud

For this new production of Shakespeare’s celebrated history play Julius Caesar, Williams has adapted the script (originally written for around 30 characters) for a cast of three – and what a terrific trio he has chosen in Geraldine Hakewill, Ewen Leslie and Zahra Newman. Once again, he uses pre-recorded and live footage – only this time the live video is recorded by the actors on smartphones rather than by a camera crew.

It’s an equally audacious venture and much of it works brilliantly, but it’s not the out-and-out success of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Working with designer Elizabeth Gadsby, Williams stages the production in the round at Wharf 1 (the first time the redeveloped venue has been used in this configuration), with the audience in four seating banks. The performance area features a raised white stage, with room for the cast to move around it. A large cube, resembling a giant, 3D lightbox, sits centrestage, each side facing a bank of seats.

During the production the cube becomes a screen onto which pre-recorded and live footage are shown, often overlaying and merging with each other (video design by David Bergman). The cube also rises and falls so that scenes can be played beneath it, and at one point it ascends to reveal a dinner table with candles.

The production begins with a brief historical account explaining why Caesar’s bid to become crowned King (or Emperor) and ruler of Rome for life, after 465 years of democratically elected leadership, has led Cassius, Casca and other conspirators to approach Brutus (a close ally of Caesar’s) to join them in assassinating Caesar. It’s a useful and effective introduction that sets the scene for the play.

From there, Shakespeare’s script has been cleverly edited to focus on a few key characters with Hakewill playing Casca and Marc Antony, Leslie playing Cassius, Caesar and Octavius, and Newman playing Brutus (with all three taking on other small roles).

Julius Caesar STC

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie in Julius Caesar, Sydney Theatre Company. Photo © Daniel Boud

Marc Antony’s famous speech to the people takes on new contemporary life, vibrancy and humour by integrating familiar grabs from speeches by leaders such as Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, Gough Whitlam, John Howard, Donald Trump and Scott Morrison. Not only does it illustrate the way that political rhetoric has continued throughout history, but how great oratory has been reduced to glib slogans.

The use of smartphones, which sees the actors filming each other and themselves, is often very smart, drawing us into the action from different angles, giving us close-ups and fanning the themes of narcissism, envy, the drive to rule, and the seduction and corruption associated with power. But at times, watching the actors pacing around the stage speaking into phones feels too much, particularly when it isn’t properly synched. The bombardment of imagery may capture the 24-hour news frenzy but it becomes distracting.

But the time we get to Zoom meetings, text messages from the battleground, footage of modern warfare, QAnon-type YouTubers and a video game (with costumes moving from casual clothing and togas to business suits), it feels overdone. The inclusion of social media certainly speaks to the way political polemic, propaganda and conspiracy theories spread virally these days but dramatically it feels rather heavy-handed and starts to wear thin.

But that is to take nothing away from the acting, which is first-rate. It’s a wordy play without a great deal of action, but the three actors handle the language beautifully, delivering everything they say with clarity and passion. To see them switch between characters with just a small adjustment to their clothing is part of the thrill of the production, so exceptionally well do they do it. Brief stage directions on screen (“Brutus and Cassius exit”) also help so that you are never in any doubt as to who is who, and what is happening.

Editing the script for three actors means the production does cut to the chase and has an intensity about it but occasionally it leads to the audience laughing at inopportune moments – seeing the three performers playing the big group of the senators on screen had the audience giggling on opening night, which continued while Caesar was being stabbed to death. Now and then, the actors consciously go for big laughs, and having Brutus and Cassius rolling around the floor laughing, daubed in blood after killing Caesar, seems a strange choice, particularly given Brutus’s claim that he loved Caesar but did what he did to protect Rome. Hysteria because they can’t believe that they actually assassinated Caesar, perhaps? A sign of their own desire to rule? It’s not quite clear.

Julius Caesar STC

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie in Julius Caesar, Sydney Theatre Company. Photo © Daniel Boud

All in all though, this is a bold, inventive production that speaks intelligently and imaginatively to the themes of democracy, power, ego, loyalty and betrayal, while embracing the role that social media plays today in spreading information and misinformation. The use of live and pre-recorded imagery is often ingenious, though at times less could be more. The lighting by Amelia Lever-Davidson and the sound by Stefan Gregory help build tension.

As for the acting, it’s deeply impressive, with the three actors giving assured, thoughtful, passionate performances in which you understand and feel every word.

Running two hours with no interval, the production doesn’t always hit its mark, but when it does, it does so with panache, and it certainly makes you see a well-known play afresh.

Julius Caesar plays at Wharf 1 until 23 December.

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