Julius Caesar — William Shakespeare

The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Julius Caesar might give you a fresh perspective on this play if you are a jaded Shakespeare watcher. If you are not, then the many quirks and production trickery might leave you first irritated, then bored, and finally both.

I often write a little review of plays or films that I see. But in this case, I will leave the commentary to the elderly orange-haired lady who was sitting in front of me. She spoke continually throughout the play, so clearly considered her opinions to be not only more important than mine, but more important than the play itself.

Plays often include a short interpretive dance performed by the cast members before Act 1. In a good production, this serves to set the scene and can be an abstract precursor to the events in the play. In this production, it consisted of several cast members in silly masks standing and doing various synchronised rhythmical arm movements to a soundtrack of very loud death metal music. The Orange-Haired Lady seemed a bit stunned by this. Of course, she may have been talking, but I couldn’t possibly have heard over the din.

The silly masks reappeared later in the play, worn by commoners in the outdoor scenes. It gave these scenes an unreal feel, and made them appear unrelated to the main thread of the play. The OHL seemed to find them amusing though, if her comments and giggles were anything to go by.

The OHL was strangely silent about the character of Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, played in traditional Shakespearean style by a burly man in rouge and a skimpy toga. In the context of this production, he looked, quite frankly, ridiculous. After all, Portia was played by a woman, so why not Calpurnia? Even more mysteriously, every time Calpurnia moved from the top of the stage to the bottom, she crawled sideways like a crab Instead of walking. I found it difficult to read anything coherent into these oddities. Even the OHL appeared flummoxed.

Other than these quirks, the first half of the play was watchable thanks to good writing (thank you Mr Shakespeare) and acting, especially from Robert Menzies as Brutus and Ben Mendelsohn as Mark Antony. The set and lighting were quite effective during the pivotal Act 3, throwing focus squarely on Caesar’s assassination, Brutus’s subsequent apology and Antony’s withering rejoinder. The assassination was suitably grim, happening almost in slow motion. It seemed to take the OHL by surprise — I think she gasped when the conspirators obeyed Brutus’s instruction to “let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood”. I am unsure of the outcome of her subsequent discussion with her friends, because I was distracted by the play.

During the interval after Act 3, there was a strange twist as I passed the OHL in the bar — she was standing quietly, not talking at all. Recuperating, perhaps.

The second half of the production was something of a blur. During the long meeting of the conspirators, there was a period of 5 minutes or so where the characters lit a couple of hundred candles. The effect was quite restful, but not necessarily the sort of thing that draws an audience into the work. During the subsequent dialogue, the eagle-eyed OHL pointed out that one of the conspirators was dressed as a clown and another was in battle fatigues and a gas mask. An allusion to the war in Iraq, perhaps, in a misguided attempt to be topical?

Then there were the strobe lights. It was all a sensory overload — the stage was totally dark and for about 5 minutes, a fantastically bright strobe light flashed at an ever-increasing rate. This might have given a sense of urgency and impending climax to the action, but unfortunately it was so obnoxious that I spent most of that time with my eyes screwed tightly shut — and even so I could see the flashing light. I tried to concentrate on listening to the actors, but I’m afraid I was just too distracted. I could make out a few of the OHL’s comments though. After some thought and discussion she concluded that the strobe lights were “very bright”.

As the strobe lights mercifully faded and the conspirators continued on their self-destructive downward spiral, the OHL found a lot more to talk about. Unfortunately, Cassius seemed to have a cold on the day, which proved inconvenient after he was supposed to be dead. The OHL and her friends had a good long chuckle over this, and over the floral wreath on his head. However, she did seem a little unhappy about the death of Brutus. I think this was because Strato, who helps Brutus kill himself, was being played by a little girl. The OHL seemed concerned that scary masks, strobe lights, death metal and dead Romans were not suitable company for a Saturday afternoon. After seeing this production, I tend to agree.

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