I’ve always had a soft spot for Julius Caesar. Maybe because it was one of the first Shakespeare plays I read in high school, or maybe because of Marc Antony’s speech that 400 years later still has incredible power and relevance.
Melbourne Shakespeare Company took on this complicated and tragic tale in a left turn for the company which has previously focussed on romantic comedies and summertime outdoor events. Taking things indoors with the 2021 sold out production of King Lear, they’ve followed up with a minimalistic Julius Caesar at fortyfivedownstairs in a confusing production that’s trying way too hard.
Natasha Herbert as the cunning Marc Antony carries the show, and her glorious manipulation of the crowd during the takedown speech that incites civil war is the highlight of the production.
The rest of the cast seem to rely on melodrama and over-the-top gestures which come across as more sartorial that sincere. Hunter Perske’s Julius Caesar however is a commanding presence and it’s a shame he has to die early in the piece, as he’s an engaging performer to watch.
The female characters that could have so much more influence are regarded more as an afterthought and never truly get a chance to explore their roles.
The pared back staging is offset by an enhanced sound and lighting design that is for the most part used effectively to create tension and atmosphere, however occasionally the sound mix overshadows the performances, and some of the text is lost.
The costume design is another odd choice, while the horse-riding get-up of Caesar and his crew are to demonstrate their wealth and privilege, there’s little to indicate the people who have less (they’re not in jodhpurs, but also not in rags). Later when they are all effectively even in their combat gear, the characters become even more difficult to tell apart (but perhaps that is the point).
I’m also unsure at the use of thick black eyeliner on the characters, if it was a conscious choice, I’d be curious to know why, as it comes off as more emo than anything else.
What is perhaps most challenging is that the five-act play has been condensed into a two-hour performance without an interval. I think even the most devoted and invested of audience members would find it difficult to remain focussed on the complex political drama unfolding for that long. In particular, Act V is notoriously complicated, what should be precise political warfare becomes jumbled suicides and an unresolved ending.
This production of Julius Caesar seemed to be more of a collision of opposing ideas that were all thrown in and became frustratingly messy. Both too much and not enough, it never found its way and left me feeling unsatisfied.
Melbourne Shakespeare Company presents
by William Shakespeare
Director Richard Murphet
Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | Flinders Lane Melbourne VIC
Dates: 24 August – 3 September 2023