A scene from Julius Caesar | Drama Theatre

Sometimes, but only sometimes, reviewing’s a breeze. Sometimes, but only sometimes, the opportunity presents itself to suspend all carping and criticising, because only praise is warranted. This is one of those times. Bell Shakespeare’s current, touring production of Julius Caesar is possibly the finest, most satisfying Bell production I’ve yet seen (and that’s saying something). It’s also, very possibly, the finest, most complete and completely successful theatrical production I’ve seen this year. In fact, without a shadow of a doubt, it’s one of the finest theatrical productions I’ve ever seen. Shakespeare doesn’t get any better.

Even those who’ve reason to loathe Shakespeare ( I was once one such, having had it ravaged by uninspired, uninspiring highschool English teachers) are likely to be seduced, if exposed to Bell associate artistic director Peter Evans’ sharp reading of Shakespeare’s play about Gaius Julius who, as well as being a general and statesman, was also a distinguished writer of prose (albeit in Latin).

If Keating was the Pavarotti of Australian politics, Caesar must’ve been the Roman equivalent, his legacy being the transformation of the republic into the empire. With great power comes great responsibility and, often as not, great conspiracy. Even, or especially, K-Rudd knows that. And, sure ‘nough, right when GJC was at the peak of his powers, the top of his game, along comes a self-serving bunch of self-righteous coves who set about necking the bugger. This, years before Judas and his 20 shekels. The Romans mightn’t have invented conspiracy, but they turned it into an artform, much emulated since. Of course, as if life were imitating art, the plotters got their poetic justice in the form of bloody comeuppance at the Battle of Philippi.

But though the play might take on the eponymous mantle of the Roman ruler, it’s not so much about him. At the heart is Caesar’s erstwhile, professed bosom buddy, Marcus Brutus, and his moral, ethical and psychological struggle to reconcile being party to Caesar’s permanent removal: the faceless men of 44BC took their work very seriously. But while it’s Brutus that lends imprimatur to the dirty deed, it’s the wily Caius Cassius that poisons his mind and disposition to that end. It’s this insidious cleverness that makes Cassius such a compelling character.

While convention dictates that Brutus be portrayed as a doyen of moral fibre, Evans has Colin Moody play both sides of the street; adopting the posture of the upright citizen, but subtly betraying his own ambition and unbridled lust for power. What’s even more delicious is Cassius’ (Kate Mulvany) knowing response. She intuits Brutus’ vulnerability to moral corruption from the first and locks onto it as a means to getting the job done. This dualised, hand-in-glove, evil expediency lends impetus and vitality in spades. The sophistication of the portrayals and interplay is heightened, too, by the fact that Cassius’ fierce determination, however pernicious, is unwavering, while Brutus has to retire to equivocate. Thus, conscience appears weak next to the strength and certainty of conspiracy.

Mulvany was invited by Evans to collaborate in adapting the text and, by her own veritable admission, they’ve been as ruthless as Romans in slashing. Like an Abbott or Gillard wet-dream-come-true, numerous senators have disappeared, for a start; along with soldiers, tribunes and plebs. As a touring production, these decisions were as much, or more, about economic rationalism than artistic licence, but the serendipitous outcome has been a play that loses nothing (not wit, nor wonder) and gains concision.

Anna Cordingley’s set is wonderful. Time and place are evoked, with crumbling grandeur, by a stand-alone column, around which scaffolds are deftly constructed and deconstructed by the actors, working as stagehands. Even this, like the rest of the play (it’s as if almost every gesture is choreographed, yet nothing looks ‘staged’, or artificial), has a beautiful, balletic precision of movement about it. Movement consultant and fight director Nigel Poulton no doubt deserves a great deal of credit.

Around the perimeter of the stage is a parliamentary, rectangular array of black leather, chrome-framed chairs. There are live mikes either side of the stage, an inventive vehicle for characters to make asides to the audience, mutter to themselves, and create sfx. Both Paul Jackson’s lighting and Kelly Ryall’s composition are in complete, synergistic sympathy: taken together, these key aspects of craft chime with an harmonic integrity. Even Cordingley’s disparate costuming, which might have looked doubtful on paper, works, in ensemble, as well as the actors do.

Alex Menglet’s double-breasted Caesar is afflicted with a strained sense of humour, a limp hand and lean-to that imply he may’ve suffered a stroke, and a character that put me in mind of, say, Brando’s Kowalski, or even Tony Soprano. He certainly has the hallmarks of a mafioso. And, we learn, Caesar, too, must’ve spent some time in ‘Joisey’, judging by his accent. Moody’s Brutus is suitably aggravating in his procrastinating pose of piety, but his diction was sometimes a tad indistinct. Later, his speech to the cake-eaters seem disingenuous, in the very way of pollies closer to home. Timely. Topical. Terrific.

Daniel Frederiksen seemed to get the Tex Perkins award for sultry sexuality as Mark Antony, if the wafting waves of oestrogen, oohs and aahs I detected were any guide. I liked that he spoke in a broad Aussie manner; what a relief from the lingering tendency towards classically declamatory, posh, put-on Englishness. Move over, Larry, at last! The whole cast is, in fact, flawlessly impressive, from Rebecca Bowers’ Calpurnia, to Keith Agius’ unassuming soothsayer, but it’s Mulvany, as Cassius, that is utterly luminous. Her sheer presence is that of a giant electromagnet. Her demeanour is the very quintessence of the self-sure master plotter. Her diction, a live masterclass.

Just as Spinal Tap’s amp went all the way to 11, so does my 10-out-of-10 rating scale for this production. I’ve blown a fuse over this one.

The details: Julius Caesar plays the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until November 16. Tickets on the venue website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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