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Julius Caesar

"pretty damned thrilling, pretty damned relevant"

Audrey review: Kip Williams’ radically depopulated production of Shakespeare's tragedy unfolds with viral speed and intensity.

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Julius Caesar

Date: 21 Nov 2021

From Capitol Hill to Melbourne’s Spring Street, recent history has given us a fresh appreciation of the fickleness and power of the mob.

Its wildness and weirdness. Its refusal to conform to accepted norms of political expression.

Something of that energy is apparent in Kip Williams’ new and radically depopulated production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, one that is played by just three actors and unfolds with viral speed.

The staging – designed by Elizabeth Gadsby for all-sides viewing – is dominated by a large cube of LED screens displaying images, text (a pre-play crash course in Roman history), title cards and live-streamed footage from the actors, who wield phones throughout. Williams’ Romans are nothing if not media-savvy. Even the assassinated Caesar manages to keep the camera turned toward his face.

Later, Antony, Lepidus and Octavius conduct their negotiations via Zoom. Octavius’ advancing legions are represented by a barrage of grainy clips from recent conflicts and war games.

The cast is kept constantly busy, as you might imagine, sometimes contributing from offstage. Only the occasional pre-recorded scene – Caesar’s assassination, for example – allows them some breathing space.

Music and sound (Stefan Gregory), lighting (Amelia Lever-Davidson) and video (David Bergman) are manipulated to build tension and amplify the sense of a state ready to tear itself apart.

Ewen Leslie is both conspirer and conspired against, playing Cassius and Caesar among others. Geraldine Hakewill also plays two sides as Casca and Marc Antony. Zahra Newman is Brutus. Other speaking roles are divvied up between them though in this hard-cut adaptation, several prominent voices have been excised altogether.

Williams spins his major themes brilliantly at times but without the likes of Calpurnia and Portia, the emotional dimensions of the play are constricted. The collateral death of Cinna the poet (Leslie) at the hands of rioters lacks impact. And as good as the performances are, one feels little pity for Cassius and Brutus as they face their ends.

The satirical spin Williams imparts to the play makes it seem rather more humorous than any other Julius Caesar I can recall. Caesar’s murder earned chuckles on opening night, though I’m unsure if it was supposed to. Covered in the blood of Caesar and breaking character, Leslie and Newman roll around on the stage chortling like teenagers who’ve just set fire to the high school gym (“we’re gonna be in soooo much trouble …”).

After a measured start, Hakewill brings the house down, turning the funeral oration into a stump speech made up of borrowings from JFK, Obama, Howard, Trump and Morrison – with confetti cannons providing a suitably ejaculatory climax. She’s also pitch perfect as a conspiracy theorist ranting from the front seat of a car and Leslie is hilarious as an apoplectic Aussie extremist.

If you know the play well, there’s a chance you’ll feel that too much has been left on the cutting room floor. But were I approaching Julius Caesar for the first time, this gladiatorial battle of competing visions would seem pretty damned thrilling, pretty damned relevant.

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