Review: BelongReview: The DollhouseA note about the FringeAustralian Theatre ForumReview: Look Right Through MeReview: Julius Caesar ~ theatre notes

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review: Belong

Bangarra Dance Theatre's Belong demonstrates, once again, why Bangarra is one of our leading dance companies (and why it has such a huge international reputation). It consists of two dances: About, by Torres Strait Islander Elma Kris, and ID by artistic director Stephen Page. Both of them add up to "stunning".

The opening work enacts myths about the wind from Kris's Islander culture, opening out traditional movements into contemporary dance, and features an astounding set design by Jacob Nash that recalls the abstract beauties of bark paintings. Each of the four sequences takes a different aspect of the wind - the south wind Zey, the storm wind Kuki, the gentle north wind Naygay and the gusty south easterly Sager - and translates their stories and, crucially, the sensations of each wind into breath-taking dance, combining physical excitement with lyrical grace.

ID comes out of the world of tradition and nature into a bleaker present. Here Stephen Page confronts the question of Indigenous identity, in all its complexities. Page's theatrical imagination and sureness of touch make this a riveting work: by turns devastating, comic, poignant and intimate.

It opens with a tour de force of multimedia, in which a black and white projected film of a family, dominated by the dignified figure of an Aboriginal grandmother, is projected on a back stage screen. A changing cast of figures move in and out of view, looking curiously towards the camera. In turn, different dancers approach the camera until their faces loom in close-up and disappear. The same dancer then appears on stage, rolling out from behind the projection, so it seems that he or she literally emerges into three dimensions from the image.

ID segues into different sequences that are constantly surprising - a satirical take on skin-colour, for example, in which the dancers, dressed as school children, squabble on bleachers before smearing their faces with vegemite to create a startlingly cheeky take on blackface; a devastating death in custody scene, in which an Aboriginal is beaten by uniformed guards and his dead body, transformed subtly into a tree, is dragged away on a tarpaulin. In its portrayal of powerlessness in the face of brutal authority, this last is as potent as the brutal beating sequence in Castellucci's Tragedia Endogonidia. ID finishes with a powerful evocation of tradition being woven into contemporary identity.

Emotionally powerful, gorgeously realised and danced with impeccable virtuosity, Belong demonstrates the richness that Indigenous traditions of performance bring to the contemporary stage. Absolutely not to be missed.

Pictures: Bangarra, About (middle) and ID (bottom). Photos: Jeff Busby

Belong: About, choregraphed by Elma Kris, and ID, choreographed by Stephen Page. Design byJacob Nash, coustmes by Emma Howell, composers David Page and Steve Francis. With Bangarra Dance Theatre dancers. Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until September 24.

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Review: The Dollhouse

In the past few years, adaptations of classic plays have become more the norm than otherwise in Australian innovative theatre. Two directors in particular wrenched opened the Pandora's box. Barrie Kosky led the way from the 1990s with refigured classics, such as Lear or the baroque opera Poppea, while Benedict Andrews's explored an austere theatricality in shows such as The War of the Roses. And there's Simon Stone's adaptations, from Hayloft's visually luscious Chekhov Recut: Platonov to the controversial Malthouse/STC production Baal to his sensitive reworking of Ibsen's The Wild Duck.

All these directors demonstrate the far-reaching influence of European auteur theatre on Australian work. Kosky and Andrews work as much in Europe as they do in Australia (Kosky, now the director of Berlin's Komische Oper, seems to have vanished from the local scene almost completely). Then there's Daniel Schlusser, who has been working rather more under the radar and whose work has been leading him in a strikingly different direction. Over the past few years he's been conducting a fascinating exploration of theatricality, mainly in the institutional shelter of the VCA, that has produced some of the most exciting work that Melbourne has seen in the past few years.

I wouldn't say Schlusser adapts classics so much as blows them up: this work is much more than rewriting. Using a practice he calls "hyper-realism", he makes theatre out of classic texts that is not so much a textual exploration as a haunting, a demonstration of how these works live in our collective unconscious. With his collaborators, he creates an alternative theatrical reality that is at once located firmly in the present and the past. The first I saw of these works was A Dollhouse, an investigation of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House at the VCA. The Dollhouse at Fortyfive Downstairs is a revisiting of this production with a (mostly) new cast, and it demonstrates how polished Schlusser's practice has become.

Watching it, I was forcibly reminded of a show I saw in Britain back in 2008: Chris Goode's brilliant ...Sisters, a deconstruction of Chekhov's Three Sisters by way of John Cage. The reason is the profound focus in both directors on the theatrical present. No matter how we imaginatively enter the realities on stage, we are always reminded that this is a work of theatre, an artifice. This is a characteristic of most work in this vein, but Goode and Schlusser in their different ways explore further the implications of what this means for performance. Crucially, both have an unerring, even poetic, sense of theatrical rhythm that makes their investment in the minutiae of human experience deeply riveting.

As with ...Sisters, the audience enters to find the actors already on stage, in pre-performance mode, getting dressed, flirting, having barely audible conversations, fiddling with props. The play itself is introduced by Schlusser (who plays Krogstad) reading Ibsen's stage directions through a microphone, but its action evolves organically from the the idle conversations and games of the actors. The delicacy of this transition is hard to overstate: the actors remain the actors, while slipping almost subliminally into their assigned roles. These performances remain unstable, since the actors might at any point slip back to being "the actors" (roles which are, for all their apparent unstudiedness, as much a performance as the roles in the play).

Complex as this might be to describe, in performance it is very lucid. And we get Ibsen's play, although this time much more radically translated than in the 2007 show. What's followed is the action, not the text. Nora (a transcendentally good Nikki Shiels) is a sexy young thing addicted to shopping, living in the gilded cage provided by Torvald (Kade Greenland), who works for the Macquarie Bank. Nora's friend Kristine (Edwina Wren) is an unemployed economist from Tasmania, and is, aside from the faithful Dr Rank (played with poignancy by Josh Price), her only confidant.

She is as imprisoned in deceit as Ibsen's Nora, but Torvald's tyranny is more subtle, a question of invisible strings. It plays out in the sexual manipulations she uses to attract Torvald's and attention and favour, her willingness to be a sex toy, her terror that Torvald will discover that she has fraudulently borrowed money from Krogstad (Daniel Schlusser). When Nora's lies catch up with her and her world collapses, we get as powerful an image of abjection as I've seen on stage: Nora, stuffing her mouth with marshmallows so they spill out half chewed, her face smeared with tear-smudged make-up, clutching her groin like a little girl who wants to wee, but here with a horrifying sense of sexual injury.

The action plays across a narrow metallic set designed by Jeminah Reidy. It's a house of expensive toys - Torvald's Playstation, litterings of Lego and brightly wrapped Christmas presents - that summons the empty materialism of Torvald and Nora's marriage, the objects and rituals that replace actual relationship. Although Schlusser has kept the rewritten ending, as he did in the first production, he gives us a much tougher interpretation: the actions of these people are more ambiguous and lost, Nora's sexuality more scarred and frightened, the subtext beneath seemingly inconsequential interactions more desolate.

This feels like a work in which every moment has been thought through, creating theatre of admirable emotional and intellectual rigor. Mandatory for anyone interested in the possibilities of the contemporary stage. It's on until Sunday, as part of the Melbourne Fringe.

Picture: Nikki Shiels in The Dollhouse. Photo: Marg Horwell.

The Dollhouse, adapted from the play by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set design by Jeminah Reidy, costumes by Tiffany Abbott, lighting by Kimberly Kwa, sound by Martin Kay. With Nikki Shiels, Kade Greenland, Edwina Wren, Josh Price, Daniel Schlusser and Cate Bastian/Gabrielle Abbott. Fortfive Downstairs until September 25.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A note about the Fringe

I will be seeing very little of the Fringe Festival this year. This is because Life is getting in the way. To wit: the edits for my novel Black Spring (coming out late next year, but the lead times are astonishing in book publishing) have arrived and must be dealt with asap, and preferably before the Melbourne Festival opens, and I have a couple of music theatre workshops coming up in early November that require some pre-attention. And then there's Stuff, such as eating, sleeping and handing my wallet to my children.

I will, however, be talking on a Fringe panel, Your Show Is Fifteen Minutes Too Long: Arts Reviewing and Criticism in the Digital Age, with colleagues John Bailey, Bronwyn Bailey-Charteris and Josh Wright. It's a forum for "bold, inspiring and ambitious arguments", apparently, which gives us something to live up to.

However, other bloggers are blogging. For reviews, try the excellent Andrew Furhmann, who is presently reviewing for Time Out, and still occasionally blogging at Primitive Surveys, and Cameron Woodhead, who logs his Age reviews at Behind The Critical Curtain. Anne Marie Peard is both previewing and reviewing, with a bunch of artist profiles at Sometimes Melbourne. Richard Watts, usually a heroic blogger of the Fringe, might blog at Man About Town, but I see he has been slack lately. Perhaps because he's busy at ArtsHub. Thats how I'll be tracking what I'm missing, anyway.

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Friday, September 16, 2011

Australian Theatre Forum

The Australian Theatre Forum. Where to begin? For the past two days, I've been locked in a box with 260 theatre makers - performers, directors, designers, composers, writers, critics, arts funders, bloggers, producers. They came from all ends of Australia, from the regions and the capital cities, from the major companies to tiny independent outfits, descending on the Brisbane Powerhouse by the river to talk, drink, socialise, exchange and plot as only theatre makers can. They're still talking as I write, as the final day is today.

This is the second national forum. The first was held at the North Melbourne Meat Market in 2009, and was a similarly intense experience. Perhaps the first value of such gatherings is outside its formal proceedings, in the countless intimate conversations that happen between. Nothing breaks down hierarchical barriers with such inexorable force as the maelstrom of encounter. But it's not just what the French call a "gas factory": theatre makers are practical people, and practical outcomes came from the first, such as Wesley Enoch's idea for a National Indigenous Theatre Forum which is now mentoring young Aboriginal artists from remote regions. I'm certain others will emerge from 2011.

For those who can't be there, there's plenty of documenting. Augusta Supple and Jane Howard have been blogging on the run, reporting sessions as they happen, and there's an active tweetstream. The video below of Angharad Wynne-Jones's presentation during the introductory Postcards from the Future session gives a flavour of what it was like to be there.

I can't begin to note every idea that was discussed, even from my partial view. People talked about micro-touring, about new writing, about women in theatre, about new ways of collaborating, about environmentally sustainable practice both front and back stage, about technology, rethinking funding, cross-racial casting, queer theatre, rethinking corporate and company structures, theatre for young people, about failure and risk. And more. But what was palpable was the air of generosity and optimism with which these ideas were approached. There were frustrations and differences, but they were all part of the creative flux. For me the keynote was struck in the introduction by new Theatre Board chair Stephen Armstrong. "Theatre might not save the world," he said. "But let's imagine it might."

Cameron Woodhead and I flagged a lively session in the Open Space that debated the place of and space for criticism. I'm particularly concerned about how critical discourse (of all kinds, not merely reviews) can be nourished and sustained in a context where there is absolutely no incentive for young critics to learn this difficult, laborious and rewarding art. Mainstream spaces for arts are diminishing: most recently, for example, the ABC has cut all its in-house arts programming. And as things stand, the ad hoc nature of the internet can't pick up the slack. I think this is a problem that going to get worse, not better.

These thoughts are in part sparked by my recent meltdown(s), and in particular by a conversation with my colleague James Waites about the challenges of sustaining a critical output over the years that are required to create continuities and perspective. We all know that as theatre is a temporal art, the discourse is crucial as archive as much as it is as dialogue. It is a major connection between an art and its public. And as with every aspect of culture, its health depends on its diversity. In particular, I'm worried that so many new voices - the next generation of critics, who are there, who are writing now - have nowhere to develop their skills and knowledge, and nowhere to go. (I hurriedly add that I'm not concerned, or at least, not at the moment, with financing this blog.) Is it time to think, as some people are in wondering where quality journalism is to come from, about subsidising our critics?


I was part of a panel on the first day with Amitesh Grover (an independent artist from India), funding theorist Cathy Hunt and Indigenous literary critic Sandra Phillips. We were asked to speak for ten minutes on innovation. Which was a curly one, frankly. As a final note, my response is below.

The New and the Old

Thinking about innovation in the abstract is difficult. It’s one of those things which you know when you see it. It's word that is routinely written on funding applications. As artists we accept as a Good Thing. We know that without it, a culture grows stale and dull. But what is it?

I come from the poetry world, where poets tend to flinch at the various phrases – innovative poetry, alternative poetry, the avant garde - which are used as shorthand to describe exploratory or experimental practice. Mostly they’ve dropped the phrase avant garde, which has an early 20th century feel, quite aside from its militaristic connotations. As Ionesco pointed out in his imitable way, the problem with the avant garde is that you don’t know it’s the avant garde until it’s all over, because it can’t be ahead of a movement until the movement has actually happened. And, of course, that doesn’t happen until the avant garde has stopped being avant.

Poets tend to be pedantic and sceptical about language, and as they point out, such labels can be so general as to be almost meaningless. All the same, we need labels to describe things, however misleading they can be, because they point to something real. 

As is my wont, I went to the dictionary. Websters is quite straightforward: it defines innovation as 1: the introduction of something new. 2: a new idea, method, or device. Another definition caught my eye, from the online business dictionary, which says innovation is “the process by which an idea or invention is translated into a good or service for which people will pay.” That second meaning might seem particularly inapplicable in the arts, where so often the new is precisely the service or good which is least commercial; but artists do ask people to pay, in attention and time, and most especially with new work.

When I think of cultural innovation, I think of old things as well as new. The new is only recognisable in relation to what isn’t new. More importantly, the new is not possible without the old. This paradox is explored by one of my favourite critics, Viktor Sklovsky, who was part of one of the greatest explosions of artistic innovation in history. His peers were some of the great modernist artists – Malevich, Mayakovsky, Meyerhold – who emerged in the intellectual, artistic and political ferment of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in the early 20th century.

In his book Bowstring, Sklovsky describes the contradictions of innovation well. “Art cognises by implemeting old models in new ways and by creating new ones. Art moves, transforming. It changes its methods, but the past does not cease to exist. Art moves using its old vocabulary and reinterpreting old structures, and yet at the same time it seems to be static. It changes fast, not for the sake of changing, but to impart the sensation of things in their difference through rearrangement.” So much of art, it seems to me, is about perceiving and negotiating difference.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another great innovator at the centre of another artistic revolution, Romanticism, said something similar in describing imagination as a force which “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create”. You see this impulse in all truly radical art. Elfride Jelinek takes the assumptions of classical art and subjects it to fierce re-examination in plays like Clara S, opening jarring new perspectives, creating new ways of thinking about language. Bill Viola takes the contemplative art of the Renaissance and remakes it for a godless world in a new medium, video. Every artist you can think of creates his or her tradition, looking back to destroy and to remake, opening the new by responding both to the art that inspires them and to the times in which they live.

Given this, it seems to me that the first condition for an innovative culture is a diversity of stimulus. The broader the range of forms and practice and technology available, the more the new is possible. The greatest threat is to the new is homogeneity, a culture in which dominant forces obscure the variousness of experience in an ever-narrowing circle of self-confirmation. The other side of that equation is that innovation is also self-confirming, as I think we’ve seen over the past few years here in theatre: innovative art sparks more innovative art.

In a culture like ours, perhaps the biggest challenge is maintaining diversity. Out of a sense that opportunities are limited, we are very often presented with either/or choices: we can either have new writing, for example, or we can have "classics". Yet just as a culture that only values the old and canonical will stifle itself without their constant reinvention, a culture devoted only to the new will remain shortsighted, trapped in an ever-decreasing and ever more homogenous present.

The real challenge is how to sustain as much variousness as possible, to broaden the bases of our culture in a time when we face real difficulties. The good news is that everything we need is already to hand. We live in a time when our resources in every direction, from our environment to our funding, are under critical pressure. The one resource that is infinite is our imaginations. And that's first thing that must be nourished if we are to face the challenges ahead.


Lastly, on a personal note, I'd like to thank, truly heartfeltly, the many people who have told me over the past few days how much they value Theatre Notes. It matters. I do it for you.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Review: Look Right Through Me

For four decades, Michael Leunig's savage and wistful universe has been one of the constants of Australian popular culture. His cartoons were a ubiquitous part of my childhood. Back in the 1970s he was still working for the lamented Nation Review, and I saw many of his cartoons for the first time in its pages - that is, until my father cancelled our subscription after a particularly pornographic review of a Cocteau film.

It seemed that a copy of The Penguin Leunig was in every Australian household. My sisters and I spent hours flipping through it, staring with wonder and hilarity at the Moomba princess strung by her toothy smile on the telegraph wires, the powdered ladies, the nose polisher.  We laughed at those mute, comic animals and the strange erotic encounters that imbued us with a mysterious sexual thrill we were too young to understand. I think we did understand, however vaguely, his darker visions, in which his wavering, fragile line revealed human beings minced in an economic machine, alienated from each other and themselves in an atomised world.

In Look Right Through Me, Kage, Kage's Kate Denborough collaborates with Leunig, leaping off many of his best-loved cartoons to create a darkly beautiful work of physical theatre. She has resisted the temptation to literally illustrate them, instead looking to translate the imagery of his imaginative world into the languages of theatre.

As with her sensitive work Headlock, which played at the Malthouse five years ago, this is a meditation on masculinity. Look Right Through Me is a manifestation of Leunig's inner world. It's a series of dreamlike sequences that move from mental imprisonment to freedom, driven by a score by Jethro Woodward that embraces, like Leunig's cartoons, the lyrical and the absurd.

Julie Renton's set, lit by Rachel Burke, puts a chainlink and barbed wire barrier between the stage and the audience. Behind it, on a darkened set lit by revolving amber lights, are a number of Leunig-like constructions: an abstract tree, a rowing boat which rears up over some small models of ducks, a bed head, a ladder. At the back is a kind of cubby house, in which there lives a small boy. At the beginning of the show, he wanders out and hangs a sign on the corrugated iron fence at the back of the stage: "Dreams will be towed away". This is, of course, a reference to Leunig's famous cartoon of the drunk in the gutter.

The world revealed here is not so much one of inner-city harshness, but rather the squalor of the suburbs: it explores a more spacious kind of desolation. The central performer, Timothy Ohl, and the child who echoes him - reflections of each other, but separate - move through a bewildering and often cruel world. The performance moves towards a reuniting with innocence, a stepping away from the seductions of alienation.

The other four dancers - three men and a woman - dramatise the man's encounters through several sequences that leap from particular cartoons. There are familiar images - a man resting in a tree, or lying in a bed sprouting grass, or a grotesque carnival - but these are occasions for investigation rather than illustration, an explication of masculine vulnerability and lostness. The danger of such an adaptation is that Leunig's fragile ethos, which always teeters on the edge of sentimentality, might be coarsened in the theatre into mere bathos. Denborough and her collaborators avoid this by making it very much its own work.

The movement itself is a mixture of dance and circus, with an exciting feeling of physical risk. In its lyrical gestures and its reach towards a naked emotional expression, some of the performance is strongly reminiscent of Pina Bausch, whose Cafe Mueller I coincidentally watched the night after seeing Look Right Through Me. This is especially true of a sequence in which Fiona Cameron flings her arms about Ohl and is repeatedly dragged away by the other performers. Thinking about Bausch, whose sense of rhythm was scrupulous, highlights the uncertainties in the dramaturgy: there are moments when the action on stage seems to splinter into dislocated elements and loses its energy, or when its repetitions cease to enrich its language. But these longueurs are balanced by some riveting moments of dance.

Pictures: Look Right Through Me. Photos: Jeff Busby

Look Right Through Me, conceived and directed by Kate Denborough, creative collaborator Michael Leunig. Designed by Julie Renton, lighting design by Rachel Burke, music composed by Jethro Woodward. Co-devised and performed by Craig Barry, Fiona Cameron, Timothy Ohl, Cain Thompson, Gerard Van Dyck, Oscar Wilson and Declan Edwards. Malthouse Theatre and Kage at the Merlyn, until September 18.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Review: Julius Caesar

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.

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