All-female Australian group Essential Theatre present their own gender-swapped take on Shakespeare’s classic. An intriguing concept, the production itself shows flashes of brilliance but also plenty of missed opportunities.
Julius Caesar is a play which, after a strong start, stumbles before it reaches the finishing line.
Shortened to an hour and fifteen minutes, the story follows Brutus and Cassius plotting to prevent Caesar being crowned Queen of Rome. As is necessary for such a shortened production, bold cuts to the script have been made. Much like the show itself, these cuts vary in their effectiveness. Those that work best include the removal of Calpurnia (who is simply mentioned offhand by Caesar); the number of conspirators has rightly been reduced, and the pacing of the play up until Caesar’s death works wonderfully. It is these early scenes which show the play at its best.
The more questionable cuts include the removal of Portia. Her absence severely undermines a passionate argument between Brutus and Cassius which is usually provoked by her death and typically serves as an important point of character development for the two characters. There are some odd things that aren’t cut. Despite the shortened running time, we’re still treated to the frankly unnecessary death of Cinna the poet but we don’t get to listen to Antony’s famous “Cry havoc!” speech.
What will perhaps be most jarring to fans of Shakespearean metre is the inconsistency with which it has been edited to fit this new setting. Sometimes it’s been edited very effectively; the word ‘King’ becomes ‘Queen’, ‘man’ becomes ‘woman’ and so forth, which works very well. Yet sometimes this editing feels too haphazard; Antony’s famous line “For Brutus is an honourable man” becomes “For Brutus is honourable” and, for anyone familiar with the script, it jars horribly every single time you hear it.
Similarly fluctuating is the quality of the blocking. Sometimes, the use of the round is perfect; the actors have been placed in ideal positions, visually interesting to everyone on all sides. Yet when it comes to delivering asides, some of the actors suddenly circle around the stage repeatedly, attempting to look every audience member in the eye as quickly as possible. Watching Antony’s funeral speech is like watching Mo Farah run the 10,000 metres, though without the emotional stakes. Brutus and Cassius’s respective suicides also lacked the required emotional resonance which rather undermined their deaths and indeed the entertaining first half of the play.
Despite these problems, there are moments of excellence. Alex Aldrich’s Casca is superb; her explanation of Caesar’s refusal of the crown is one of the highlights of the play, delivered with exactly the right amount of comedy and sincerity. Helen Hopkins as Caesar is also exactly as imposing and dominant as is required of the character. The costume design is excellent, managing to simultaneously evoke both a Roman and a timeless aesthetic.
The scene that sums up the production as a whole is that of Caesar’s death. The tension is excellently amped up and the lighting fades to present an excellent still image as the conspirators getting ready to strike. Yet when they strike, it feels clumsy. After being stabbed multiple times, Caesar still staggers around the stage to deliver her final lines before collapsing like a sack of potatoes. It’s a tad underwhelming and, what’s more, frustrating given the successful nature of the build-up.
Julius Caesar is a play which, after a strong start, stumbles before it reaches the finishing line. Defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory but it is still entertaining to watch, showing so much potential and occasionally hitting it.