BELL SHAKESPEARE: Associate Artistic Director Peter Evans takes Shakespeare’s momentous account of Roman history and transports it to the corridors of backroom politics.
Adaptations of Shakespeare – whether they compress the action, alter the text, shift the setting to a modern period (or just play the thing in modern dress), cut down the cast or put women into men’s roles (or vice versa) – work, I’d say, about one time in three.
This production is one of those that works.
Yes, they’ve altered lines. Yes, they’ve left bits out. Yes, it’s in modern dress, and yes, a woman plays Cassius. They’ve not only cut the cast by about 70% – they’ve even altered the story, going for Plutarch and historical accuracy in respect to the death of said Cassius. But, by jingo, it works. And how!
The cast of ten comprises some brilliant players and others who are more than competent. Colin Moody as Brutus and Kate Mulvaney as Cassius were among the brilliant. It was they who carried the action along in what was at times a very physical way: movement and fight man Nigel Poulton is to be commended on some well-timed, energetic work that must have tested the actors’ fitness. The argument between Brutus and Cassius was as good as any I’ve seen and better than most in the timing. The tension ramped up line by line, carrying the packed house with it.
Special kudos to Russian–trained Alex Menglet as Caesar. He played the wily old man in an excellent southern drawl. My companion likened him to Marlon Brando – not Brando playing Brutus, but Brando playing The Godfather! There were shades of George Bush junior in the portrayal as well. A memorable performance quite different from any other I’ve seen.
Caesar’s was not the only ‘different’ portrayal. Two of the most famous speeches in the play – those of Portia and Antony – were also highly original in their execution. Portia is traditionally depicted as a brave but somewhat neurotic and hysterical woman, but Katie-Jean Harding made her a strong, angry, very modern woman. The neurosis is still there, but this is a far more interesting Portia, one better suited to the tenor of an era in which gender equality is prized.
Likewise, Daniel Frederikson gave us a Mark Antony well-suited to the modern Australian psyche. In this country, we take all politicians with a pinch of salt. We give them little credibility and expect them to be frugal with the truth. Antony’s speech brought forth snickers in all the right places. Yes, we know all about pollies and their too-clever talk here in the Land of Oz.
The set – deceptively simple in its use of a couple of dozen boardroom chairs and a soaring column surrounded by a low fence – served every scene from the forum to Brutus’s house to the battlefield. Now and then the cast would swing into action with the crew, raising the fence until it became a scaffold to provide Brutus and Anthony with a platform for their speeches, only to grow higher still later in the play by means of beautifully choreographed and neatly-timed teamwork that was never less than an organic part of the action.
Much of Act V’s dialogue was replaced by an adaptation from Plutarch, read like a news report from the sidelines by Katie-Jean Harding. Given that ten actors can hardly be expected to do full justice to the battles at Philippi, this was a sensible substitute.
It was pleasing to see a full house, and especially to see the number of young people obviously enjoying the production. The Perth season is only four nights long, but if you missed it here, you can catch it in Albany on August 23, Mandurah on the 25th and Geraldton on the 27th. By that time, the company will be half-way through its gruelling four-month tour. They’ve already played Ballarat, Sale, Hobart, Launceston, Albury, Wangaratta, Wagga Wagga, Frankston, Orange and Canberra. When they leave WA they have Bendigo, Melbourne, Alice Springs, Darwin, Cairns, Mackay, Rockhampton, Gladstone, Caloundra, Gold Coast, Lismore, Bathurst and Sydney to look forward to. I hope they last the distance.
Rating: Four and a half stars
Bell Shakespeare presents
Director: Peter Evans
Designer: Anna Cordingley
Lighting: Paul Jackson
Composer: Kelly Ryall
Movement: Nigel Poulton
Dramaturg: Natasha McNamara
Assistant Director: Imara Savage
State Theatre of WA, Heath Ledger Theatre
August 17 – 20
For additional dates please refer to the Bell Shakespeare website
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What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level