IIn William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, about the assassination of the military general and aspiring dictator, Caesar’s friend Mark Antony builds his power with propaganda tools to awaken the hearts and minds of ordinary people against armed assassins of Brutus and Cassius knives.
The first tool is Caesar’s bloodied body, which Antoine brings to the market, showing where the daggers have plunged, the “nastiest cut of all.” The second is Antoine’s oratory skills, which turn bubble dust into gold by inspiring mutiny and rage among carpenters and shoemakers. The third is a parchment on which is said to be written the will of Caesar and great beneficence for the citizens of Rome.
Of course, the real Caesar had been the prototypical propagandist, minting coins in his name and image, having statues of himself sent through ancient Rome. He wrote on his own in the third person, so town criers repeating his words could add to his awe-inspiring brilliance.
Director Kip Williams understands that in his contemporary account of Julius Caesar, directed by the Sydney Theater Company, a year when American citizens stormed the United States Capitol under the misunderstanding that they were fighting for freedom , he must use not only the famous oratorical speeches, the corpse and the parchment, but also demonstrate the ability of the technology to make the conspiracy go viral.
Williams has established himself as a technological innovator in theater, his brilliant staging of Eryn Jean Norvill playing the 26 characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray is a recent example. This new production uses only three actors, employing a combination of live and pre-recorded performances that allows the trio to play multiple roles in a work normally requiring an ensemble five times the size.
Ewen Leslie switches from Cassius to Caesar by donning a laurel wreath, Geraldine Hakewill alternates as a conspirator Casca and Marc Antony, and Zahra Newman primarily plays Brutus. All three know how to make the language and the rhythms of Shakespeare flow naturally.
They film themselves on smartphones, with an appropriate selfie narcissism. Their live streams are projected onto a huge cube suspended above the stage, the use of screen filters and multiple perspectives increasing the tension. They alternate between casual contemporary clothing and togas.
But where most of Julius Caesar’s productions are entirely dramatic, this one plunges its toe into absurdity when, just after the assassination, Cassius and Brutus roll around laughing. Cassius even draws a heart of love with the blood of Caesar.
I was initially surprised by their unusual portrayal of mean children, given the high ideals of shared power of Cassius and Brutus. But this interpretation works if you doubt the couple’s commitment to the republic and see their motivation more as a cynical maintenance of elite power.
As Marc Antony takes off with his speech, the production takes the satirical leap: Geraldine Hakewill, in a white suit and nude skirt and heels like Antony, struts on stage with a microphone like a preacher or evangelical coach, throwing every political clichÃ©: “empty the swamp”, “yes we can”, “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”, “if you go for it, you go for it”.
On the cube, we see Antony, Lepidus, and Octavius ââholding a Zoom meeting, with the conspirators bouncing around texts and emojis, alternating with views from a wellness influencer TikTok giving her an attentive view of events and YouTubers spouting satanic conspiracies and claiming the assassination is fake news.
Is the satire of this moment on screen a little thick? Yes, but gloriously.
Julius Caesar normally lasts about two and a half hours, but this production takes about two hours. What is lost? The two female characters, the wife of CÃ©sar Calpurnia and the wife of Brutus Portia, are absent from the scene. Their appearance in the domestic scenes of traditional productions clearly shows that in Roman times women were not allowed to enter the Senate and the Capitol of Rome.
However, the fact that two actresses play key male roles here highlights the under-representation of women in contemporary politics. The stabbed antics of male leaders carry all the contemporary scent of toxic masculinity.
The murder of Cinna the poet is meanwhile underestimated, his mob assassination copying the actions of their leaders a profound attack on reason and the imagination.
During Brutus and Antony’s speeches, the prerecorded audio takes the place of the citizens, but I would have preferred to see these citizens come to life, especially since the conspiracy-inspired mob rule has recently threatened democracy and must be seen to be understood.
I also wonder if turning ensemble shows into productions with one or three performers robs actors of jobs at a time when the arts has suffered a foreclosure crisis, and if screens are overused, dictating audience attention. .
But in this Caesar, as in Williams’ previous Oscar Wilde play, you feel that the audience loves racing. The rhythms and spirit of Leslie, Hakewill and Newman are in sync, and using today’s social media sites as the anachronistic toys of the Romans is so smart.
Like any contemporary clever narcissist who threatens democracy, Julius Caesar would have loved social media. One can imagine “I am as constant as the North Star / whose true quality fixed and restful / there is no companion in the firmament”, written by the Bard around 1599, like a trendy tweet.
This is certainly a more elegant statement than any from the last to hold the presidency of the United States: “LOWEST RATED Oscars IN HISTORY.” The problem is, we don’t have any more stars – with the exception of your president (just kidding!) â.