Sydney University Drama Society presents William Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR. This is one of many productions of JULIUS CAESAR that I have seen in recent years.
"Metellus Cimber kneels before Caesar begging the repeal of his brother's banishment. ... Brutus, with a kiss that reminds us more of Judas than of Brutus, ... seconds the petition ... Caesar, refusing ... The moment has come. Casca stabs him from behind, the others follow, Brutus significantly, striking last. "Et tu, Brute? Then fall Caesar!" ... - ''the most unkindest cut of all"
Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!
Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!
Peace, freedom, and liberty!
cries Brutus ... he bids his fellows to bathe their hands to the elbows in Caesar's blood.
How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents unknown!
cries Cassius as he complies with Brutus' bloody suggestion.
How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport ...
Thus the soothsayer, Shakespeare, has predicted that many ages hence shall act out this lofty scene, in states unborn and accents unknown. The states unknown in this present case is a truly 'sad' theatre space called The Cellar Theatre - that the Sydney University authorities, whose University is ranked 49th internationally, ought to be entirely ashamed that it serves as this Student's body "home' - and that the 'accents unknown' is Australian.
This production by a young director, Nathaniel Pemberton, is neatly prepared. His young actors, mostly, speak the language with great clarity and inner motivating thought. The textual discipline is very fine indeed. The physical life, from these untrained actors, has also been trimmed and edited so that it suits the clarity of the word and the word the actions, mostly, so that, to quote the director's program notes:
...Today, this historical tragedy comes to us as an audience influenced by three times periods: the Roman context (via Plutarch) in which it is set; the Elizabethan context in which it is written, and by which it is heavily influenced; and our own modern period. The humanity and poetry, held within Shakespeare's text, endure in spite of the interplay of these eras. The timelessness of his work means that 397 years after his death, Shakespeare stands as our contemporary.In a very successful exploration, Mr Pemberton has cast women in the principal roles and men in the female secondary ones, there is a gender blindness to the rest of the casting. (In London at the Donmar Warehouse there has just been an all female Julius Caesar - Harriet Walter as Brutus, Directed by Phyllida Lloyd). Here, Caitlin West gives an outstanding reading of Caius Cassius, her verse speaking, her instincts for the dramatic scale of her scenes and the complexities of her character are, considering her youthfulness, as clear as one could wish, so much so, that it is Cassius in this production who appears to be the principal pillar of the triumvirate, and the focus of Shakespeare's tragedy.
Usually, this play has Brutus at the centre of the tragedy (it is written that way), sometimes Mark Antony (maybe, only if you have the charisma of a Marlon Brando?!), but, both Cassandra Jones as Brutus and Michaela Savina as Mark Antony do not have the security of text or as a firm grip on their respective responsibilities as Ms West. It is Ms West who holds this production together, like 'a colossus' ! Travis Ash as Portia is very winning and clever; Charlie Jones as Casca also a standout from the enthusiastic rest. Any play requires real preparation, Shakespeare more so than most. There is, despite the appearance of an iron discipline in this performance, hints of unpreparedness, lack of full commitment from some. It does not interfere too much with one's involvement, but, it does, occasionally, show.
The production values are what Peter Brook might call Poor Theatre: The Cellar Theatre, black walls and floors, with just a raised platform between two (real) architectural columns and a step, with just a little change in the battle scenes, is simply, the acting area. The costumes are contemporary, formulaic - black jeans and shoes/boots (mostly) with a long sleeved white shirt in the first half, replaced by white T-shirts with either a red or blue ribbon for the battle scenes, bloodily indulged, of the second half. The lighting is rudimentary, perforce of the limited means that the Dramatic Society endures (Ethan McKenzie), the sound fairly repetitive, and, although initially dramatically rousing, not diversely inventive enough (Composer, Eunice Huang). Props are 'poor' theatre - the swords seeming to be fence slats!
Mr Pemberton has, thankfully taken no 'avant-garde' gestures, that he may have see at Belvoir or the Sydney Theatre Company, and many a too often occasion at the Bell Shakespeare, his contemporary 'role' models, and instead, bravely, and rightly trusts to the power of Shakespeare and his text - no de-constructions here. His one concession is to a black cloaked figure of death and carnage (Finn Keogh) who appears and haunts the spaces throughout - a silent scream on the battlefields of Philippi most moving, the war sketches of Goya recalled vividly, for me.
Shakespeare's play JULIUS CAESAR with assassination by knife has had not only had a familiar re-visit on our stages in Sydney in recent past, but, also in our political metaphors of late. Shakespeare does truly stand as "our contemporary" especially in our Federal Parliament, if the Federal opposition were to be taken at their words. So, it was indeed curious to have both, Bob Ellis - a sometime virulent, and sometimes amusing political commentator - and Bob Carr, Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs - up to his tweeting finger tips with a crisis of Israeli/Australian political intrigue, I suspect - with Mrs Carr, present, at this performance. I hope that both gentlemen enjoyed it as much as possible and have some handy quotations newly 'remember'd' for their contemporary "jobs".
Better, I hope, that both gentlemen might speak to the Chancellors and other authorities of this prestigious university, and urge them to do some investment into the performance arts in their domain. The Cellar Theatre is a disgrace that this administration should take urgent note of. The world authorities who rank the international universities should be shown the contempt this university seems to have towards the Performing Arts. I understood, and would be happy to be corrected, that The Seymour Centre is a University building, built from a philanthropic gift to this university, with a dedication to the Performing Arts. Why does this historic Sydney University Dramatic Society - SUDS - that can claim many illustrious alumnus in the national and international arts world, have to endure such poor accommodation? Why does the Society not have free, regular access to one of the three theatres at the Seymour Centre? Or, why is it not subsidised to be able to afford 3 to 4 productions a year over there. Does the corporate/capitalist notion of profit, override proper education at this university, too? It seems so.
The New South Wales University seems to have the same Thatcherite out-of-date attitude towards its performing arts courses. Reducing and closing them down as fast as stealth allows. I hear the Io Myer Studio, one of two spaces available to that student body, is always under threat of demolition. Probably, to build more foreign student cash-paying accommodation or another multi-storey car park - fee paying, of course? The National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) as well? I ask, simply for information. Are there fewer public student productions in recent years and many more public hirings of the Parade Theatres? I certainly see less student work from the acting course than ever before? It is strange, as 'doing it' seems to have been the underlining principle of the acting training since the Institute's foundation - it was the reason for the foundation of The Old Tote Theatre Company (which, ironically NIDA is celebrating in the coming weeks, the launch: Saturday the 9th,of March) - the predecessor of the present Sydney Theatre Company - to give the actors graduating, the ability to practice their craft.
And, P.S. Don't ask of the Performing Arts courses at Macquarie University, the University of Western Sydney (UWS) or University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), either.
Mr Pemberton asked me to attend the work. I applaud his promising will, persistence and talent. Having the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and one of Australia's leading cultural commentators, Mr Ellis, take an interest in his work and that of the other students must be some redress for the apparent lack of interest of anybody from the University authority.
If only we had an Olympic Games for the Performing Arts. Some of the funding from the Institute of Sport would be useful, I reckon. Oh, well. Poor old Simon Crean will probably never get to release his Arts Policy, either. The Labor Government regarding the Arts, as usual, as only an add-on to the fabric of Australia's nationhood and reputation.
Let us stand around the bleeding body of arts education in our universities, " Peace, freedom and enfranchisement"!
Shakespeare our contemporary ?