Julius Caesar | Essential Theatre
With an extremely strong all-female ensemble of six actors, Essential Theatre’s Julius Caesar manages to be both subjective and direct, presenting a dramatic night of loyalty, uncertainty, betrayal and ambition.
Following on from Heartstring’s Coriolanus earlier in the year, Fleu Kitpatricks’s production shows the power and potency possible when women are able to inhabit the famous roles in Roman tragedy, leading to a seamless translation full of strong performances. Interestingly, the interpretation avoids the original’s gender politics by cutting the original female roles. I’m curious to have seen the effect if these more domestic scenes had remained, showing an even broader array of female characterisation. However, their compressed and edited version does allow the six person ensemble to shine. With the entire cast taking on a number of both ensemble roles and elements of production, they have a powerful sense of unity that hits home both among the conspirators and the crowds.
Amanda LeBonte’s Brutus embodies conflict, visibly uneasy of Caesar’s ascent yet so consumed with guilt she is unable to even look at her. Her Brutus is highly sociable and likable, making the absolute trust many place in her believable and heartbreaking. Preferring to lead through straightforwardness, she makes an intriguing pair with Devon Lang Wilton’s quiet and subtle interpretation of her closest confident. Watching from the fringes with a notebook in hand, Lang Winon’s Cassius is subdued and watchful. She masterfully baits those around her, but even in her control of others there’s an almost sad, lonely edge to her, particularly in the final acts as her closest relationships threaten to break.
Alex Aldrich’s Casca is energetic, vibrant and often a source of humour even in the darker scenes, feigning reluctance before eagerly diving headfirst into plotting. Yet Leah Filley’s characters of Cinna, the Soothsayer and Lucius often conveying a more genuine sense of reluctance or kindness, it makes their central role in some of the performance’s most violent scenes all the most chilling.
Charismatic and manipulative through honesty, Sophie Lampel’s Mark Antony is able to both bluff her way out of situations and, when alone, command the stage. Her rendition of the famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ speech is enthralling as her grief evolves to triumph. And with the crowd remaining at the back of the stage, it is the audience who receive its full power. Helen Hopkins double casting as both Caesar’s gives Octavius’ appearance even more potency, with Brutus seeing the violent ghost of her past reborn as the young conqueror. The tension between her and Lampel’s Antony hints at their conflict in later plays. And even within her moments of greatest paranoia, her Julius Caesar maintains a regal composure that leaves the nature of her character – and indeed, the plot itself – open to interpretation. It conveys the nobility and honour of Antony’s praise, yet her ability to dominate the stage even when surrounded by prowling conspirators hints at her potential for absolute power.
For a play so engulfed in social dysfunction, its realisation is a triumph of unity
The intimate warehouse sets the stage for this urban political thriller, with the metal cages creating an eerie clatter than mingles with Justin Gardam’s powerful score. Aldrich’s costume designs are also evocative and timeless, with their scarlet-adorned coats as senators being both unique and versatile. Their cloaks also have an interesting variety between the characters, ranging from Caesar and Mark Antony’s capes, the tapered, gown-like attire of Brutus and the conspirators or Cassius’ unique sash resembling a toga. But one one of the most memorable and unique aspects of the production is the death scenes, as the victims crumble in dusty powder. With centuries of exposure to Roman imagery, it’s easy to imagine marble busts falling and crumbling as cracks form among the characters.
For a play so engulfed in social dysfunction, its realisation is a triumph of unity. With only a limited season, the chance to see this rapidly paced yet intimate and powerful performance is not to be missed.