Theatre

Kip Williams’ bold and devastating production of Julius Caesar brings the 21st-century media machine into a study of political rhetoric. By Bri Lee.

Julius Caesar

Zahra Newman, as Brutus, with Ewen Leslie, who plays Cassius and Caesar.
Zahra Newman, as Brutus, with Ewen Leslie, who plays Cassius and Caesar.
Credit: Daniel Boud

After Trump was elected, Julius Caesar became America’s Shakespeare du jour. It makes sense considering the play’s protagonist, the righteous and reasonable Brutus, is up against a leader emboldened by populism and heading towards tyranny.

Early in Act 1, Cassius complains that Caesar sees Romans as sheep, and asks, “What trash is Rome?” that they adore him so. The sheeple are prepared to relinquish democracy to crown Caesar king, but Cassius knows that Caesar’s ambition will mean the death of the Republic.

Many scholars have commented that a more accurate title for the play would have been The Tragedy of Brutus, as Caesar dies smack-bang in the middle of the play. The play in fact tracks how the honourable and reasonable Brutus is brought to barbarity – by the machinations of Cassius as well as his own philosophical commitments – and how his spirit is crushed after the crime.

Julius Caesar is, tellingly, the Sydney Theatre Company’s first show after lockdown. When we enter the theatre, the first thing we notice is that it’s theatre in the round. Elizabeth Gadsby’s set is a square white platform, with four banks of seating rising around it, and it’s dominated by a giant three-metre cube that throbs slowly, dull then bright, each side actually panels of screens.

What Kip Williams is adding to Shakespeare’s rendition of this 44BCE story of power and politics is the 21st-century media machine, in all its multicam glory. Would our impression of Caesar’s assassins be altered if they were live streamed? Why do we mock selfie-taking politicians, yet long to be swayed or persuaded by them? What effect have smartphones, cable news and social media really had on the fundamentals of oration and politicking?

The play is situated between now and ancient Rome, with actors shifting from togas and wreaths to suits and New Balance sneakers. They mostly speak in iambic pentameter but occasionally burst into swearing and modern English. In the aftermath of the assassination we see half a dozen different internet subcultures – the contemporary equivalent of Rome’s plebeians – reacting in their uniquely absurd ways to the (possibly fake) news. Always we are searching the screens and real-life faces for what is and isn’t genuine. The core question of the play, however, remains: whose version of events will we choose to believe?   

Ewen Leslie performs both Cassius and Caesar, and both portrayals excavate the duplicitous politician, simultaneously working his fellow politicians and the cameras. He plays Caesar for laughs and it works every time – physical comedy here and caddish looks to camera there.

Zahra Newman, the stand-out talent in STC’s 2019 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, plays Brutus, bringing an extraordinary gravitas to the role. In one particularly beautiful scene, the cube slowly lifts to reveal a banquet table laden with food and a dozen candles. Brutus wears a maroon cape with bronze buckle, the embodiment of the riches available to the ruling few in the Republic, for his monologue about Caesar being a “serpent’s egg”. He is lit softly by Amelia Lever-Davidson as he ruminates on whether or not to “kill him in the shell”. The candles and stage lighting distort the images projected onto the cube, a discomforting effect that heightens the characters’ lowest moments.

As Brutus delivering Caesar’s funeral speech with bloody hands, Newman is the embodiment of muthos, a quality Roman historian Mary Beard defines as a specific type of “authoritative public speech”: a package of charisma, power and eloquence that fills even the largest amphitheatre. At the critical point when Brutus tells us, “If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more”, I had goosebumps up and down my arms.

The magnificence of Brutus’s funeral speech was enhanced by composer and sound designer Stefan Gregory’s subtle altering of the miked vocals, which reverberated towards us as if we really were in an amphitheatre. Williams understood no cameras would be needed for this. Newman, alone on stage with her muthos, was more than enough.

It also sets us up. As Mark Antony (Geraldine Hakewill) carries the bloody robes of Caesar onto the stage, I think that there is no way Hakewill can match Newman’s mastery. But then Mark Antony pulls a microphone from beneath the bloody rags, shucks off a stained toga to reveal a crisp and pristine white skirtsuit complete with nude pumps, and – bang – turns to camera with one point, bang, turns to the next camera with another point, bang turns to yet another camera.

The stadium lights come up. We’re laughing at the strong whiff of televangelist, and then our ears start picking up new phrases: “terror network” and “drain the swamp” and “we shall fight on the beaches”, woven into the original speech with pizzazz. The incongruity is hilarious. The speech gets faster and with a prickle we recognise race-baiting rhetoric from Morrison, Hanson and Howard. It rises in speed, volume and hilarity to a finish that is literally ejaculatory. The crowd goes wild. We, the audience surrounding the showman, cheering and clapping, have switched sides. We’ve been wowed and bought. What trash we are.

The liberties taken with the text are sometimes as bold as in these speeches but elsewhere they are subtle. A tech-bro Octavius funding Mark Antony’s war was a masterstroke. There are substantial cuts too: the character of Portia, Brutus’s wife, is cut entirely, as are many of the military roles in the last act. I think the staging of Brutus’s final suicide scene is better – dare I say more Shakespearean – than the original. This is a Brutus who has been driven mad by guilt and sorrow.

The production does occasionally falter. Unsurprisingly, the moments of weakness are those that rely too much on technological possibilities. Sometimes a smartphone is recording when it feels unnecessary. A videogame component is genuinely funny but doesn’t add anything in particular and is ill placed at the finish of the play, where it undermines the honesty of Brutus’s death. But worse still is the final montage of portraits of politicians throughout history that is projected on the cube.

It felt like high-school drama to hit us over the head with this very literal message after what had already been delivered with subtlety and cleverness. I prefer to be left to my own conclusions and questions. Is it right to mourn the replacement of muthos with this Fox News spectacular, when Brutus and his friends were slave-owning oligarchs? We demand our leaders be great orators, so is it fair to act shocked when the people elect entertainers?

After Mark Antony’s speech, a mob kills an innocent man, Cinna the Poet, who shares his name with one of the conspirators against Caesar. This scene was presented to us with all the visual cues and symbolism of the recent storming of the United States Capitol, and it was deeply unnerving. Even we sheeple can see for ourselves that nothing has changed. 

Julius Caesar plays at the Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney, until December 23.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 27, 2021 as "Trolling Caesar".

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Bri Lee is a legal academic and the author of Who Gets to Be Smart.

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