Bell Shakespeare theatre company has been presenting the works of The Bard to Australian audiences for 27 years. The company is currently touring Julius Caesar to 28 theatres nationwide involving a trimmed cast of ten actors playing twenty roles with five support crew. The Melbourne and Sydney shows last month generated some damning reviews but I had high expectations for opening night at Perth’s State Theatre Centre. After all it was Shakespeare performed by a specialist national theatre company – what could go wrong?

Julius Caesar.JPG
Bell Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Photoc Prudence Upton

In Julius Caesar Shakespeare recounts the assassination of one of ancient Rome’s most popular leaders. Director James Evans’ gritty production emphasised the politics of power with Caesar on the campaign trail, his image emblazoned on a billboard. Key speeches from Brutus and Marc Antony were delivered rally-style from a makeshift stage. The bleakness of Anna Tregloan’s scaffold set design and urban grunge costumes were emphasised by Nate Edmonson’s industrial sound design. So far so good.

But Evans’ angle was only partially successful. Missing was Shakespeare’s examination of the persuasive power of words and his heartbreaking depiction of flawed humanity.

There was no chorus role – by necessity in a small production – so the fickle mob reactions to the political intrigues were expressed through the soundscape. But Edmonson’s electronic samples and wails didn’t do it justice and was one of many aspects where Shakespeare’s work was stripped back and unsatisfyingly substituted.

Evan’s vaguely modern updating avoided any overt political references and the absence of directorial substance left a vacuum. The places where Evans’ touch could be felt were equally problematic: Caesar’s stylised death scene felt like B-grade theatre with the body tossed from person to person; Marc Antony’s funeral speech was cut in half by the interval, and why all the shuffling with mattresses in Act 5?

Evans’ notable achievement was the mixed racial and gender casting which worked seamlessly. Sara Zwangobani was a persuasive Mark Anton(ia) and I couldn’t help but detect Julia Gillard’s misogynist speech in her raw ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’. Emily Havea was a cool Octavius, Ghenoa Gela’s welcome humour and intelligible delivery stood out as Casca and Nick Simpson-Deeks was entirely convincing as the hot-headed Cassius. Astoundingly not all the cast mastered the flowing metre of Shakespeare’s lines; Kenneth Ransom was an insipid and sometimes incoherent Julius Caesar and Brutus – the beating heart of the play – was played with weary condescension by Ivan Donato. His mechanical delivery was layered with sarcasm and made the epitaph ‘noblest Roman of them all’ seem like a mockery.

The ambiguities in Shakespeare’s beautifully sculpted characterisations were all but eroded. Evans’ reductionist emphasis on politics created a shallowness and showmanship that quickly wore thin and, worse, left the audience unmoved.

Julius Caesar continues at the State Theatre Centre until August 11th then Mandurah, Bunbury and Albany.