In the catalogue of most quotable Shakespearean plays Julius Caesar is probably second only to Hamlet. Friends, Romans, countrymen, beware the ides of March. Et tu, Bruté, he has a lean and hungry look but it was Greek to me. It’s a play full of great men, great speeches and quotable quotes.
But when you get past the rhetoric the play essentially consists of a lot of unlikable guys who plot, fight and bark a lot. The challenge for a director is to make the central relationships sufficiently sharp and complex to sustain our interest through those long stretches where all the Roman names start to sound alike and the secondary characters seem to blend into each other.
Blessed with strong performances in the major roles and a fascinating feminist subtext, Katrina Dunn’s Bard on the Beach production provides a memorable first half but can’t quite overcome the play’s anti-climactic second half of dying, speechifying, and generic battles.
Dunn has pared the play down to its fundamentals, staging it corridor-style on David Roberts’ bare rectangular platform, which facilitates quick movement but creates a somewhat placeless effect. Mara Gottler’s usually gorgeous costumes are reduced to earth-toned robes, vaguely Roman-looking.
The plot revolves around the assassination of Caesar, a surprisingly small role played with considerable strength and stubbornness by Allan Morgan. Hot-headed Cassius (a powerful Gerry Mackay) kicks off the conspiracy, but its moral leader is the respected Brutus (Scott Bellis), who in many ways is also the central character. When the funeral oration of Mark Antony (Craig Erickson) turns the fickle populace against the conspirators, civil war erupts.
Bellis turns in his usual rock-solid work as the intellectual Brutus who rationalizes like crazy but never convincingly explains why Caesar needed to die. Erickson does a great job with Antony’s famous speech, but his character is clearly a manipulator with his own agenda. None of the big four makes you particularly want to root for him.
In this production the good sense and moral high ground clearly belong to the women. The Soothsayer (Linda Quibell), Caesar’s wife Calpurnia (Melissa Poll), and Brutus’ eloquent mate Portia (Jennifer Lines, wonderful in this small central role) are smart and sensible and ultimately ignored by the self-important men whose great ideas tear apart Rome and each other.
At the end, when Brutus wants someone to hold his sword while he falls upon it, so he can kill himself in glorious Roman fashion, director Dunn has Quibell and Poll play the soldiers who refuse. After all the men’s high-minded gestures and stentorian speeches, it’s the women who will still have to mop up the blood.