Julius Caesar, currently playing at Brisbane’s Roundhouse Theatre is the second offering of La Boite’s 2011 season. It’s a welcome back surprise to the in-the-round format for this production too; how I’ve missed it. Speaking of good surprises in the theatre, I love going to La Boite; you never quite know what to expect. From the configuration of audience to performance space, to the exploration of the ‘full grammar of performance – movement, music, and the visual arts as much as the spoken word’ (La Boite program note Julius Caesar) you’re never going to experience a dull night in the theatre. Artistic Director David Berthold is taking his company into some pretty exciting places. But to this production …
I must say I have felt really sorry for the backstage crew of a lot of new Australian productions I’ve seen in the past couple of years. I’m trying to find a phrase that sums up the kind of messy mayhem attacking our stages in plays like Anatomy Titus (QTC 2009); STC’s recent Oresteia; Belvoir’s Measure for Measure, and now Julius Caesar which is directed by David Berthold and designed by Greg Clarke. I think ‘splatter play’ is going to have to do because that’s what happens an awful lot of the time in these shows. Actors and audiences are subjected to lots and lots and lots of fake blood, gore and other goo – baby powder, chocolate pudding (acting for you-know-what) as well as canned fruit salad – the old stand-by for vomit. These are liberally sprinkled, spattered and squirted – everywhere. Add booze and food (as food) to the mix and you have a Stage Manger’s nightmare. By the way, they are all classics or draw upon classical texts for their inspiration.
You have to ask why about this current design and directorial fascination with bodily fluids and other schmeary stuff. Is it, as some mutterings suggest, an antipodean copy of some of the weirder aspects of contemporary German theatre, or a way to update an old text into a contemporary shockfest? When it works well it’s certainly surprising in the best sense, wrong-footing the audience and creating a kind of lunatic arena for lunatic happenings – yes, a nightmare for we sweet-smelling, well dressed, clean-obsessives in the audience. Theatre is great at outing taboo subjects and making audiences squirm; it’s always bound to offend someone, though sometimes you sense it’s for the shock value alone. Then its obviousness becomes distracting and sometimes just plain silly. For the backstage crew, it’s always a bloody mess to clean up. The blood-letting had another outing in this production – to be expected, of course in perhaps the original splatter play. You can’t count the old Greeks, by the way. All their gory bits happen offstage. The play must have been an absolute shocker for the Elizabethans – killing a king right there in front of the groundlings. It still is for us in the 21st century now we have television to bring us the closeup.
Speaking of the killing, there is some wickedly fine blade work in this production (choreographed by fight director Nigel Poulton), and it made for some brutal, gut-wrenching (pardon) moments. Cold, calculated and expertly administered, I never doubted the professionalism of the assassins led by Brutus (Steven Rooke), Cassius (Paul Bishop) and Casca (Ross Balbuziente) as they went to work on Caesar (Hugh Parker). Mark Antony (Thomas Larkin) was no mean slouch with the dagger either – in fact, he was the coldest, most calculating of all, as he’s meant to be – no spoilers here, but in the closing minutes of the play there is a very clever coup de theatre that plays with the narrative structure and explores notions of dreaming and imagination – a nice directorial touch. As for the amount of blood – it was just about right – but I still feel for wardrobe night after night.
Speaking of wardrobe, the costumes didn’t work – for me anyway – but I have no doubt youngsters will adore the look and feel of this production which appears to have been squarely pitched at a very particular demographic – the under 25s, maybe even the under 20s. Music by Steve Toulmin nails the contemporary world of the production to the mast. I know the Elizabethans didn’t give a fig about historical accuracy, so using the ahistoric argument is fine as long as the pieces like the splatter and the music and the costumes all actually come together with the rest of the production to create and enhance the ethos of the stage world. Julius Caesar‘s Rome is set, apart from some brief scenes with citizens, in the upper echelons of society, and seemed adrift from the overall design. Much of the gravitas of the play was compromised by the awkward mix of contemporary and playtime Roman gear. Shirts and ties, singlets, sneakers and hoodies are fine (sort of) but this mix with token togas and rubber armour is odd, to say the least. Besides, togas and sneakers only work in Orientation Week at uni.
Another trend in Shakespeare productions right now has to do with cast size. Berthold’s Julius Caesar is stripped down in more ways than one. A talented cast of 8 create 21 listed characters, and they do so very well. Music and Sound Designer Steve Toulmin has a busy night, appearing as the Soothsayer, Lucius, a Priest, and Cimber the Poet, whilst Anna McGahan (Portia, Decia Brutus, Titinia) and Emily Tomlins (Calpurnia, Metella Cimber, Lepidus, Marcella) add a female presence with some gender-blind casting in secondary roles. The verse is spoken clearly and intelligently, and for the most part very well – I thought Mr Larkin came closest to taking his time and letting the text work on him – and so on us – in the set-piece speech to the citizens of Rome: ‘Friends, Romans …’ Stage action moves quickly from scene to scene, but there were times when a couple more actors would have helped things along. Whilst the hoodies cleverly helped mask faces, I imagine those unfamiliar with the story are going to be confused about who’s who.
Julius Caesar is about conspiracy politics, but it’s also a love story – between friends, husbands and wives, and for principles and ideals. Some might even say it’s a love story first and foremost, and that it just happens to be set against a background of politics. Whatever angle you take I really did feel short-changed by the production’s lack of passion and the emotional complexity of the relationships within the play – the fibre of characterisation that I love in theatre. This is the subterranean tension that forces the scene by scene confrontations with the intellectual line of the work, and it’s what makes Julius Caesar such a wonderfully profound and very human play. I missed the nuance of emotional depth in the playing and thus the exposition of the moral ambiguity and personal cost at its heart. Scenes seemed almost rushed at times, the acting cool, distant, even informally relaxed when the emotional barometer was clearly rising. I wanted to see actors dig into the great moments of introspection and intimate engagement, and I really longed for some genuine emotional and physical contact in the private scenes. Whilst we all know how this one is going to end, it is seeing how everyone gets there that’s the really intriguing part.
Which is not to say that it wasn’t a terrific night in the theatre. Get along and see for yourself. It plays until 20th March. All details on La Boite’s website.