NB: This review contains spoilers
"Shakespeare," says Jan Kott, "is truer than life. One can play him only literally." It might seem counter-intuitive to some, perhaps, that Kott goes on to say that to play Shakespeare naturalistically is to butcher his plays. Shakespeare's world is not a mirror held up to mundane life, so much as an intensifier of its significant moments. The spectacle magnifies and absorbs reality, making it "truer". Kott is clearly not speaking of factual accuracy. It seems that to Kott, who demonstrates here a profound understanding of poetic, "literal" and "poetic" are pretty much synonyms.
Bell Shakespeare's production of Julius Caesar is poetic in this sense. Peter Evans examines the literal truth of the play, and forges a contemporary language in which to make it plain. The result is a lucid, profoundly exciting production that intelligently excavates a play for our political times. But first, some reflections on the politics of Shakespeare.
For Kott, Shakespeare was the artist non pareil of the Grand Mechanism of history, a tragic vision which Kott describes as a kind of metaphysical escalator peopled by the kings. "There are no bad kings, or good kings; kings are only kings," he says. As the kings claw their way to power, their actions reveal the contradiction between the world of action and the "moral order", a recognition that implicates their entire kingdoms. The kings step over the bloody heads of their predecessors to take their place at the top, only to be butchered in their turn. History is the amoral mechanism that turns good men to brutal and ruthless actions, and which deprives them of the choice to be otherwise. It is, as Kott says elsewhere, "the situation".
Betraying my intellectual crudity, I have never been sure whether the Grand Mechanism, a phrase so pregnant with portent and abstract agency, might not be more mundanely called "politics". At its most basic, politics (derived from the Greek for "citizens" or "city") is the means of making collective decisions. It is the complex mediation of power, the process of deciding who decides and who is at the mercy of decision.
Where Kott sees a monumental and crushing "reality", a world determined by a tragic mechanism called History, I see a web of intensely complex interactions through which power is produced, attacked and defended. The crux of this political reality is amplification: the kings are the productions, the amplifications, of countless actions, public and private, significant and insignificant, linguistic and military, historical and contemporary. This, however, may be merely a rephrasing for a latter time. The lack of choice that Kott describes as the condition of power remains the same, and the fulcrum of Shakespeare's historical tragedies is this recognition of powerlessness.
Two of Shakespeare's Roman plays - Coriolanus and Julius Caesar - reflect this more complex drama by explicitly bringing the state - the Roman Republic - into the purview of tragedy. As Kott says, the scene shifts from the staircase of kings to the arena of class struggle between patricians and plebians. In these plays, he says, history ceases to be a demonic history of the royal. "It is," he says, "only ironic and tragic". Certainly, Julius Caesar, in its language and dramaturgy as much as in its political insight, remains a startlingly modern play.
As Shakespeare can demonstrate, theatre is a powerful simulacrum of the political. Indeed, politics is often pejoratively described as "theatre", mostly by people with little interest in theatre itself: if politics is mere "theatre", then it is considered to be with without meaning, a dumbshow of empty gesture that has nothing to do with "reality". There is, however, a profound relationship between politics and theatre: theatre, as a conscious simulacrum of reality, mimics how politics itself is a show of simulacra, a series of simulations. Politics is a primary maker of simulations that stand in for reality, claiming to be the thing itself, and which at last infect the real with their own reality. Another is art.
The tension in politics is not between the authentic thing and its forgery, so much as between warring simulacra, those that have invaded the previous reality and themselves become "real", and those which have yet to realise their reality. (As an aside, I invite you to examine the close etymological relationship between the word "real" and "royal". Or that the real was once a unit of Spanish currency. Facing "reality" is not as straightforward as it might seem.)
There is, in this vision, no authentic "real", only a series of simulacra that stretch back through history, producing the reality that will in turn be usurped by the next simulation. In other words, it's elephants all the way down. If you follow this thought, it becomes clear that theatre is as real as anything that occurs in Parliament. It's certainly much truer.
So, to Bell Shakespeare's production of Shakespeare's political tragedy, Julius Ceasar. It's one of his shorter plays, based on Plutarch's account of the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar (Alex Menglet), at this time Emperor of Rome in everything but name, by a cabal of plotters led by Cassius (Kate Mulvany) and Brutus (Colin Moody). The action moves swiftly and cleanly to its crisis - the murder of Caesar in the Capitol - and its aftermath, when the plotters lose their battle for power in Rome, and fall on their own swords.
Despite its title, the play is the tragedy of Brutus, the honourable man whose ideals lead him to murder. At issue is the Republic, the state run by citizens (defined as people who were not slaves, or poor, or women). Most of the conspirators, caviling against Caesar's absolute authority, have baser reasons for seeking to murder the proto-Emperor, but Brutus is a true believer, and his motives, as he explains again and again, are disinterested. Caesar must die because he threatens the ideal of Rome, because in his ambition he seeks an Imperial tyranny in which his word is law. The irony is that the blood shed in the Capitol is as fatal to the Republic as Caesar's ambition.
The other major actors in the tragedy are the people of Rome, the plebians whose support is crucial to Republic and tyrant alike. Peter Evans's elegant production approaches the play as both a private and a public tragedy: Brutus's destruction parallels the destruction of free Rome. It begins with the people celebrating Caesar's return after his defeat of Pompey, the first death blow to the Republic, and ends with Brutus alone in the dark, demanding of the audience that someone hold his sword so he might run on it and kill himself.
Evans and his co-dramaturg Kate Mulvany capitalise on the modernity of Shakespeare's language to make a text that moves swiftly and fluidly across the space. Most cuts are in the final acts: the battles are here reported by Portia's ghost speaking into a microphone, and there are no eulogies for Brutus in the final moments: he is left on the brink of death, facing the destruction of all his hopes. It makes a brutal vision.
As in the "real" world, politics in Rome consists of two main means of persuasion: force of arms, and language. The play turns on two speeches made at Caesar's funeral: the first by Brutus, a bluff honourable man who believes in decency and justice, and the next by Mark Antony (Daniel Frederiksen), Caesar's off-sider, whom Brutus's decency has spared against the pragmatic advice of Cassius. Antony understands the art of manipulation far more profoundly than Brutus, who is the kind of man of thinks a spade is a bloody shovel.
Antony's speech is a masterly work of oratory, in which he sedulously keeps to the letter of Brutus's stipulation that he "shall not in your funeral speech blame us". He says only that the conspirators were "honourable men", but in each repetition of the phrase, it becomes weighted with a dreadful irony, until he might as well have proclaimed them bloody murderers to the crowd. The people, who cheer Brutus one moment as a hero, now turn against the conspirators; and from that moment all hope for the Republic is lost.
Here we are watching something fascinating: the beginnings of a performance language. If it doesn't quite feel fully developed, it is already a powerful tool. You can see the influence of constructivist theatre in the disciplined physicality of the actors, especially in the choreography as they build a high scaffolding. But a strong and exciting sense of physical theatre imbues the details of the performances, in how they move and relate in space, in their observation of the edges of the stage (when each actor exits, he or she pauses briefly just before they step off). There are two microphones, which are used for private asides or for the voices of the public, and also as elements of Kelly Ryall's sparely brilliant sound design: actors strike the mics or breathe into them to make an earsplitting crowd noise.
There are extremely effective formal gestures as well: the actors use no props, and when Cassius shows his sword, Mulvany simply extends her hand. The murder of Caesar is performed by each actor striking him with their hands, and the violence is represented by white powder, which puffs out and floats in the light (a steal from Benedict Andrews's The War of the Roses, here given a different spin).
Alex Menglet as Caesar is the only actor who doesn't observe these formalities: as Caesar does, he breaks all the rules. His Caesar is huge: generously brutal, charismatic and careless. Moody's Brutus is his dark contrast, bowed by the weight of his conscience, unbending and breaking. As it should be, because it plays out the central meaning of the play, this is a powerful performance: Moody is as good as I have seen him in this role. We get a man in whom all passion is fiercely repressed, only to explode in rage and despair.
Kate Mulvany as Cassius is fluidity against Moody's implacability, all supple determination. It's a fascinating decision to cast her in this role, and it wiggles open the play's politics: she is left ambiguously gendered, the male nouns left unchanged, the pronouns all feminised. (Despite its contemporary relevance, the role recalls Margaret Thatcher rather than Julia Gillard.) The fight between the brothers, in which Brutus rebukes Cassius for taking bribes and betraying the ideals of the Republic, is a highlight, hair-raisingly and viciously passionate. In the supporting roles, Daniel Frederiksen's Mark Antony is in comparison disappointingly monotonal; the language carries him, rather than the other way around. I was especially taken by Katie-Jean Harding as Portia: she found a musical extremity in the language that reminded me a little of Melita Jurisic.
The Republic is represented in Anna Cordingley's design by a classical pillar that reaches up to the ceiling, surrounded by workman's railings. In the beginning, it is already a neglected ruin, with weeds growing around it. This reminder of old Rome glowers over the set, which is a performance square marked out by chairs and surrounded by arc lamps that throw a low, yellowish light (design by Paul Jackson) over the action. After Caesar's murder, the column is splashed with blood.
Just before Antony's speech, the performers begin to construct a scaffolding. As the power struggle rages between the conspirators and the Triumvirate that eventually wins Imperial power, the scaffolding rises until it is the height of the column. In the final moments of the play, screens are let down down over the scaffolding. On them is drawn an anaemic, life-size sketch of the column that conceals the column itself. The simulacrum of the Republic is complete, and now the Empire can begin. It's as devastatingly eloquent an image of what has happened to western democracy as I have seen.
Disclaimer: I am under commission for a music theatre work with Bell Shakespeare's Mind's Eye.
Picture: Colin Moody and Kate Mulvany in Julius Caesar. Photo: Joe Sabljak
Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, directed by Peter Evans. Designed by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composer Kelly Ryall. With Keith Agius, Rebecca Bower, Daniel Frederiksen, Benedict Hardie, Katie-Jean Harding, Alex Menglet, Colin Moody, Kate Mulvany, Gareth Reeves and James Wardlaw. Bell Shakespeare at the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until September 17. Opens Sydney Opera House October 25. National tour dates at Bell Shakespeare.