Julius Caesar

I can’t help myself. I see theatre company adverts for Shakespeare and I want to go. It’s something to do with ur-performances – the young Tom Courtney as Hamlet in Edinburgh when I was seventeen, or The Footsbarn Theatre’s Macbeth in Sydney in a tent, circa 1985 – these performances enact a deep subconscious pull towards the possibility of what these plays can be and might be again. And why not? The same urge presumably informs the companies that continue to put them on.

But oh, how often I am disappointed. Rarely as badly as I was by Brendan Cowell’s Hamlet, which dredged a new low in what is achievable from a major company, an interpretation in which he seemed to deliberately destroy every possible cadence of the words, ripping the heart out of the play until it was no more than a vainglorious slash-fest, a self-indulgent rant, leaving no room for the audience to relate to the characters. Enough to make even the most dedicated fan think twice about stumping up the fee.

What strikes me as little short of weird is how often directors fail to recognise that the essence of Shakespeare lies in the text. Not in the plot. Not in cleverly managed sets or lighting or elaborate costume. In the words alone. It is the words that we go for. To hear well-trained voices bring to life the lines. And yet, time after time, we find them cut to pieces, obscured by loud music or special effects.

Last night it was Julius Caesar at La Boite, in Brisbane. In the round. A brave production, one of the better, with some fine acting, but nonetheless marred by this same reluctance to give us the text of the play, to bathe us in language, to give us the great gouts of words that we crave to wash over us, never mind if we even understand them. What we get instead are songs and story, shaved of its reason for existence. As if the audience can no longer be trusted to sit through simple words but must needs be distracted with music and tricks of light.

Don’t get me wrong: this was a good performance, and if you are hungry for Shakespeare you will get good meat here, especially in the performances of Brutus, Marcus Antonius and Cassius, but there is still something missing. By the end I do not weep for Brutus. By the end he and Cassius and all their ambition (for which crime they so readily slew Caesar) moves me not.

Those ur-performances I mentioned before had one thing in common: bare stages, and an overwhelming respect for the text. When Macbeth knelt down to mourn his wife there was barely a dry eye in the audience, so engaged had we all become in his struggle. We had not been watching a Scottish king play out the politics of an ancient time in fancy words, we had watched a man such as ourselves come undone. We were riven by it.

I say it again for those directors who would listen. It is not the plots of these plays that interest us. It is how the men and women who enacted that history were driven to it. That is what we want brought alive before us. The means of it is in the text. Cast aside your gaudy lights, your fancy stages, your pop songs and clever devices. Speak well and speak strong. That will carry us.

(ps There was an odd choice made in this production where the two women in the company also played other leading male characters. Metellus had become Metella, Decius, Decia, Lepidus, Lepida. It didn’t work. It served as a distraction. This was a tale set amongst men who lived in a time in which they would not, could not, accept women as equals in valour. To ask us to pretend that they were otherwise undermines everything we know of them. However valiantly they were acted it made it hard for us to believe in them and those who would truck with them. This is not to say that in such an ensemble piece women should not take on the roles of men, only that in this case the women were playing women, and it is hard to imagine a woman as one of the actual murderers of Caesar, putting in the knife.)

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