Review by Thomas Gregory
There is a good argument to be made that it is getting more and more difficult to put on a Shakespeare play. Not logistically, of course - the scripts are easy to memorise and are public domain, so many of them require little in terms of props or set dressing, and audiences are far more likely to go to a play they know than don’t. No, the difficulty is in making the play your own. To do so requires creativity and the willingness to take risks.
Melbourne Shakespeare Company are no stranger to taking risks with the bard, and their latest offering, Julius Caesar, is certainly an ambitious one. From decisions regarding performance choices and blocking to a set design I had to ask the creators about, this production is full of experimentation that will have you scratching your head. Unfortunately, these choices are made all the more difficult to enjoy when combined with unpolished aspects of the play that many would consider unforgivable.
Julius Caesar is staged at fortyfivedownstairs, the lowest floor of one of Melbourne’s older buildings. The exposed brickwork and metal bars give an industrial aesthetic that works well with Dale Ferguson’s set design. Maybe even too well. As someone new to the venue, I eventually gave in and asked the company if the Acrow Props (vertical scaffolding elements) were there to protect the building or part of the dressing. It was the latter, and in some ways, I can appreciate the attempt at visual metaphor here. Methods to try and keep an empire standing despite all the signs of it about to fall and all that. It also complements the costume design by Savanna Wegman, which sometimes dresses the people of Rome as if they are industrial workers. The director's notes mention that the play “is a drama of the people – the workers, the street cleaners, [...] the soldiers caught up in this battle that is not of their own making.” The “crowds and armies” we see on stage remind us of the role of the people in this story more than other productions might.
However, it is still concerning. Why did I have to ask to know for certain if this was set or venue? In the end, it came down to the other creative choices made when staging this play. Over a third of the audience viewed the play with terrible sightlines, and so much of the action was staged in front of these pillars that it would be easy to think they were trying to avoid use. At no time did they play any other symbolic role (as they could trees, or pillars, etc), and they (in a practical way) constantly appeared to get in the way of actors as they moved in and out of positions.
Of course, this was just one of many creative choices that have left me baffled. Was it a choice for the constant soundscape to be kept at the same volume as the actors, offering a computer-game soundtrack experience that would have had me turning to the audio settings if at home? Perhaps I am meant to experience that tension the constant noise brought with it? Were the faces constantly in darkness because of terrible lighting options offered by the venue, or was there a choice to present Brutus speaking to the crowd from the shadows? So many of these design choices have possible explanations, good explanations, but I could never be entirely sure if I was “not quite getting the brilliance” or simply “rationalising the bad”.
Even in the acting itself, I can not speak confidently. It is the first time I’ve experienced a Cassius devoid of manipulative maliciousness, and the idea was certainly appealing. However, Mark Wilson’s performance of the conspirator was so much more melodramatic than any other actors and I do not know what this direction was hoping to say. Was it that I should compare it to the more understated presentation Matthew Connell gave of Brutus? What would I take from this comparison? And to what benefit would it be for Antony to be simply a mourning friend who stumbled upon the clever turns of phrase than a gifted orator manipulating the senators and the people from the moment his Caesar died? Certainly, Natasha Herbert played this interpretation perfectly until she was caught up in how contradictory it is to some of the lines in the script. And what of the gender-bending? Casting a woman as Antony works wonderfully, but making Antony a woman creates a whole new story about relationships that never seemed to be unpacked.
Fortunately, there are some things I can be confident of. Hunter Perske, with impressive stage presence and expert control of emotion, makes the perfect Julius. From public persona to a caring husband, Perske finds the most compelling aspects of the character and lays them out to enjoy. It helps that he is supported so wonderfully by Michelle Perera, an actor who never fails to bring out the best in everyone else on stage. Aisha Aidara is magnificent, and a reminder of how terribly wasted the character of Portia is in Shakespeare’s play. The complex nature of Brutus’ personal world is far more tantalising to modern audiences than the battlefield scenes that close out the script.
There were sadly many more dropped or mumbled lines than one would expect from a company of this calibre, and often the prop or costume choices felt cheap… as if hampered by constraints on the creative. As someone only slightly familiar with MSC, I wonder if this is simply something to be expected with their new “Studio” plays, or if there were other factors going on.
In the end, I struggle to recommend Julius Caesar, though I am hopeful that many will disagree with me. There may have been some brilliant creative choices here, but I know for certain that I shouldn’t have to guess. This is the risk we all take when we experiment, of course, and MSC should be applauded for that if nothing else - for taking risks and using some of the best Melbourne has to offer when doing so.