Julius has a lean and hungry look

The conspirators... Kate Mulvany (Cassius) and Colin Moody (Brutus, far right)

The conspirators... Kate Mulvany (Cassius) and Colin Moody (Brutus, far right)

Arts editor HELEN MUSA discovers some surprising differences in Bell’s new adaption of “Julius Caesar”

YOU can expect to see a lean and hungry version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at the Playhouse soon.

For Bell Shakespeare has hired playwright Kate Mulvany, not only as an actor playing a lean-and-hungry role, but as co-adapter, with the director Peter Evans, of this much-loved work.

Mulvany, of course, is already familiar to Canberra audiences from her performance piece “The Seed,” seen at The Street Theatre two years ago – that’s the last time she was in Canberra.

Keeping busy writing scripts, including a commissioned work by Bell Shakespeare about female freemasons, she’s been working in film and TV. Now she is playing, of all roles, Cassius, the brains behind the coup against Caesar.

Typically, Cassius is thought to be a man, but in Mulvany’s view that’s irrelevant, since essentially he is, as Shakespeare wrote him, a living breathing human being. And anyway, Mulvany reminds me, Robyn Nevin once played Mark Antony.

It seems there are pitfalls in casting the often vituperative Cassius as a woman, so they had to be careful not to stereotype him as a conniving female.

“I’m playing Brutus’ sidekick as a strong female character and a brilliant politician,” she says. She is manipulative, she’s lean and hungry, but she’s also vulnerable and dies with a beautiful speech.

“I don’t say sorry, but it’s pretty damn close,” Mulvany says.

As  co-adapter, she has a view about the contemporary parallels being drawn in this production, promoted with references to Julia Gillard’s political assassination of Kevin Rudd.

To Mulvany, “Julius Caesar” is much bigger than that, with “an intricate set of relationships, so there’ll be no red wigs and no terrible Ocker accents… this is a universal piece.”

As for the scripted female characters, “Julius Caesar” has two principals, Caesar’s wife Calpurnia (“I told him, don’t go”) and Portia, the upstanding wife of Brutus and daughter of the stoic philosopher Cato.

Shakespeare obviously loved both the character-type and the name of Portia, used twice in his plays. Here she’s played by Melbourne’s Katie-Jean Harding, who, with Antony, gets some of the best lines in the play.

Credited by critics as the only married woman in Shakespeare to rise above wifely stereotyping, she is nonetheless often played using sexual wiles to persuade Brutus to unbutton his secrets.

“I tackle it in a different, modern way, asking what it is to be a woman,” Harding tells me. “It’s a brilliant role and a  brilliant scene,” she says, shedding light on the character of Brutus and what he’s giving up by getting involved in the conspiracy against Caesar.

Harding also hints at the lean-and-hungry look of this new version, in which the ending is changed. Really? How? “Well that’s a big question for the audience to answer,” she answers.

“Julius Caesar”, The Playhouse, August 2-13, bookings to 6275 2700 or canberratheatrecentre.com.au 

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