Julius Caesar (USC Theatre and Performance)
Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre
November 7 – 10
Before its traditional opening festivities of Roman commoners celebrating their ruler’s defeat of the sons of his military rival, Jo Roth’s “Julius Caesar” begins with a song. As Soothsayer Lucinda Shaw’s smoky ‘Never ‘til Now’ lures the audience into her fortune tell to the great Roman general and senator to beware the Ideas of March as a prophesied death day. It is a surprisingly intimate and still start to the show as the characters group together on stage before flurrying into the nooks and crannies of the opened-up Visy Theatre’s post-apocalyptic setting, for contemporary civilisation as we know it has collapsed and amidst the ruins, a group of storytellers present Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” to examine where humanity went wrong.
Though there is never really as sense of anarchy, the story’s aggression and energy soon emerges despite the typically-testosterone-charged play being presented with gender-blind casting. With a dystopian aesthetic emphasised by Mad-Maxish dark costumes of buckles, boots and leather accents, this is clearly not a traditional take of the historical psychological drama of tragic hero Brutus’s conflicting honour, patriotism and friendship. Musical additions, especially ongoing instrumental guitar compositions performed by Daley Smith create an evocative soundscape but are unnecessary distractions.
Appropriately, however, the music stops once Brutus is persuaded by the other senators to join in an assassination plot to murder Caesar before he can become a tyrant. The beautifully stylised assassination scene, is a highlight, bathed in the red as perfect illustration of how lighting guides the audience through the emotions of story’s themes of fate and free will, even if it is less effective in its initial rudimentary representation of the mighty-god fire of a thunderstorm raining lightning fire over Rome.
Michelle Lamarca makes for a striking Caesar from her initial Act One entrance, showing composure and vocal control befitting a military leader. However, the play isn’t so much about Caesar himself, but the effect of his dictatorship and conspiracy plan through assassination to aftermath. And the other performers convey the story with passion. Ross Miller, in particular, is excellent as the impulsive nobleman Cassius. The play’s Shakespearean language sits conversationally in his mouth as he changes pitch and tone to make meaning and emotion clear without the sometimes overly-laboured phrases of some others. His delivery is precise yet flexible, not only vocally but through his inhabit of movement and gesture and another highlight is his early conversation with his friend, Brutus, in attempt to persuade him that, in the best interests of the public, Caesar must be stopped from becoming monarch, even if some second-night slips from Brutus (Angel Kosch) detract from their later interactions.
The show’s most impressive performance moment comes courtesy of Rainee Skinner as Mark Anthony, Caesar’s most loyal supporter, imploring his friends, Romans and countrymen to lend their ears. The grand oration scene is impressive in both delivery and design; Skinner is perfectly simmering in share of Antony’s most famous political achievement, conveying an engaging light-and-shade approach to its energy and emotion. It’s an impressive section of the play as the eight-person cast successfully conveys a sense of mob mentality as they enter into the audience to hear Brutus’s defence of his own actions and then Mark Antony’s subtle and eloquent reminder of Caesar’s humility and trust of those who turned on him.
“Julius Caesar” is a play of great lines, containing some of the most famous of Shakespearean quotes and this production is a quality showcase of, not only the play’s great moments, but its endurance, because as the closest thing Shakespeare wrote to a political thriller, the tale of “Julius Caesar” still has things to say to a modern audience, especially in its illustration of how tyrants don’t recognise their own oppression. Indeed, there is much to enjoy in the play and this reimagining alike; its accessibility is appealing to those new to the story and its highlight performances of key scenes are satisfying to Shakespearean purists and lovers of language alike.