Thomas Larkin (Mark Antony) Photo: Al Caeiro

Review: Julius Caesar – La Boite Theatre

Thomas Larkin (Mark Antony) Photo: Al Caeiro

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.

Anna McGahan Photo: Al Caeiro

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.

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5 thoughts on “Review: Julius Caesar – La Boite Theatre”

  1. I saw Julius Caesar last Sunday after being invited by a friend. To be honest I thought it had great promise at the outset but it was inconsistent in its direction. The orgy/party-like start was great and the music fantastic and up beat. Then later on we were treated to a bit of rap which was brilliant and completely engaging. However, for me the play limped along in between these gorgeous highlights. I wondered why the director hadn’t had the courage to really ‘go for it’ but instead reverted back to a more classical form which for me dragged. Brutus was almost monotone at times. I felt he lacked direction the most. I felt he stood ranting for most of the play, unlike Mark Antony who had so much life in him. For huge chunks of the play the actors danced around each other with almost no direction or sense of purpose. Cassius looked more like a dancer than a statesman. A pirouette would not have surprised me in the least. I didn’t like the costumes. Brand new, white, shining trainers are not what I would associate with a statesman. Old battered trainers would have actually looked better. Hoodies are ok but cargo trousers, please!! They just looked daft. For me there were some really great moments but, as I said, inconsistent.

  2. Hi Damien

    thanks for your time in responding so fully to my post. I appreciate your comments.

    In response I’d say my ‘struggle’ has less to do with ignorance of the origins of the ‘violent excess’ aesthetics of some European theatre, charged and driven by the politics of the time, as in the nature of their derivatives in whole or part in the Australian theatre.

    By the way, I did say I thought the blood-letting was just about right in this production of Julius Caesar. My whole riff on the splatter thing is probably misplaced in this review, but I sensed the basic elements at work in the production.

    I’m with you on ‘influence as a driver of creativity’ and it’s in this area – in the context of the contemporary Australian theatre – that my interest lies. I’m not sure it is a ‘lingering trend’ here at all and, whilst I know about the ample commentary of work elsewhere, I’d be really interested in see further analysis as it relates to the Australian context.

    PS I wish I’d seen Andrews’ production of the Australian play The Season at Sarsaparilla. The same use of video cameras in private spaces got a fairly definitive outing in his production last year of the classic Measure for Measure – and it worked brilliantly.

  3. Hello Kate,

    I was interested in your comments about blood and extremity on stage in recent theatre. There’s been an awful lot written about this over the years, and it’s worth repeating the highlights of that commentary here. I think your analysis is a little off the mark.

    (This has nothing to do with Julius Caesar, by the way. There’s no more blood or extremity in that production than you’d normally expect for this play. In fact, probably less, since the deaths of Cassius and Brutus in the dream area of the play were, as far as I could tell, bloodless.)

    The contemporary propensity for violence, blood and other bodily fluids, abuse and so on, goes back to the early ‘90s in Britain. Aleks Sierz’s 2001 book In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today outlines the trend famously and succinctly. It mostly starts with Phillip Ridley’s Pitchfork Disney, and then finds even more notorious expressions in plays such as Sarah Kane’s Blasted, Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking, Jez Butterworth’s Mojo and Anthony Neilson’s Penetrator. In the space of just a couple of years in the mid-90s, the face of British theatre changed. It was variously called the “new brutalism” and “neo-Jacobean”. The style spread to the USA (Tracey Letts, Phyllis Nagy, and Naomi Wallace), Scotland (David Harrower and David Greig), and many other nations. It filtered into Germany mostly through Thomas Ostermeier’s stagings of these British and American plays when he was running the Baracke at the Deutsches Theater in the mid-late ‘90s. There, it became known as “blood and sperm theatre”. It’s misleading to suggest that the productions you’ve noted over the last couple of years are German-influenced in this particular way. German theatre was influenced by a movement in the British theatre.

    Most commentary attributes this style and interest to the frustrated expressions of “Thatcher’s Children”. These British writers grew up under Thatcher, and with the help of a new breed of artistic directors (especially Stephen Daldry at the Royal Court) found a voice.

    The productions you mention in your blog are, really, just a lingering part of this now almost 20-year trend. You’re not noticing anything new, really, and there’s ample commentary to explain it. So no need to struggle to find a phrase Kate!

    You mention German influence in Australian theatre. I think you’ve wrongly attributed it. There is influence, but it has nothing to do with blood and violence and so on. That’s a British thing, which a new German generation of theatre makers adopted and mad their own. The influence has to do with the use of video, microphones, private spaces and a rather free approach to textual fidelity. Barry Kosky and Benedict Andrews are both deeply influenced by this style, and of course both work extensively in the German theatre. Andrew’s wonderful production of Season at Sarsaparilla, with its video intruding into private spaces, is exactly the tool used by Frank Castorf many times at his Volksbuhne theater in Berlin. His 2002 production of Street Named Desire (called Endstation Americka), for example, used video cameras in an identical way, providing views of internal scenes. Berlin’s theatre has seen gold leaf falling from the ceiling well before Andrews used it so effectively in War of the Roses. I don’t think there’s anything with any of this, by the way. Influence is a driver of creativity.

    Damien

  4. Hi Marc
    No you don’t have to be in your 20s or under to have a great time at this production – did I say that?
    PS I agree about the dream sequence – it had the same effect on me that the revelation at the end of The 6th Sense had. My mind scrambled back over the action looking for more signs and clues. Certainly, a great talking point.
    PPS Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

  5. My friends and I had a great night at this production. And for the record, we’re all over 30 (but not yet 40!). What, some loudish music, a few t-shirts and singlets and a bit of blood means you have to be under 20? Mmmm.

    I admired the passion and intelligence of the production. Sure there were bits that were better than others, but the overall experience was a really compelling one. I’ll be going back. I wasn’t confused by the mix of costuming. My friends and I spoke about this afterwards in the bar over a pinot grigio – the sharp-eyed among us noticed that the togas and plastic Roman gear only appeared twice – at the opening toga party and then not again until right at the end in what (thrillingly) turned out to be Brutus’s dream. Thinking about it, I suppose dreams are like that. Your subconscious calls up earlier crucial, seminal events and morphs them. I thought it was an interesting way to express a dream world.

    The thing I also liked was how the ghost hand of Caesar killed Cassis and Brutus in the dream. Much better than what I remember being Shakespeare’s really perfunctory use of Caesar’s ghost. This production sure enabled Caesar to get his revenge! Mark Antony must be thrilled.

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