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EVEN as the National Museum of Australia celebrates the noblest Roman of them all in “Rome: City and Empire”, Bell Shakespeare is letting slip the dogs of war in a gritty iteration of “Julius Caesar” that shows the seamier side of the eternal city.
The famous characters are there – the great conspirators, Brutus and Cassius, the brilliant but vain Caesar himself, his anxious wife Calpurnia, Brutus’ forbearing wife Portia, the eloquent Marc Antony and hovering on the sideline until the last act, Caesar’s boyish heir Octavius, soon to become Augustus Caesar.
It’s the third time they’ve staged it in Canberra and associate director at Bell Shakespeare James Evans is directing. Despite his name, he has no familial connection to Bell’s artistic director Peter Evans.
A graduate in acting from NIDA, he played Buckingham in “Richard III” a couple of years ago and, with an MA in English, from the University of Sydney, has facilitated Shakespeare masterclasses in schools, universities, theatres and juvenile detention centres, while also hosting leadership and communication workshops for the company.
What motivates as a director, he tells “CityNews”, is very clear – “Shakespeare’s language… it’s the words, the language and the relationships.”
This is the first time Canberrans will see one of his productions and he’s picked a beauty, for the immensely popular play has hardly been off the stage since it was first staged in 1599.
Evans denies that “Julius Caesar” comes around with some frequency, saying: “Not really, 2011 was the last time, but it’s one of those plays which is so dominant in our minds that it just feels as if it was recent”.
That 2011 production featured huge scaffolding, symbolic of Rome, and some cast members got scaffolding licenses, but this tour takes in 28 different venues – “Alice Springs tonight, Darwin the next”, as he says, so designer Anna Tregloan had to make it easy to pack into a truck – a big truck with a moving billboard on the back that can revolve into different angles. It allows the screening of a huge, charismatic image of Julius Caesar.
“There’s a sense of the city, an industrial feel, the smell of smoke,” says Evans.
Caesar is assassinated halfway through the play, so he is hardly the central character.
“Shakespeare directs us towards Brutus, but Cassius and Marc Antony all have their significant moments in the play,” Evans says.
The shifting relationship between Brutus, played by Ivan Donato, and Cassius, played by Nick Simpson-Deeks, is particularly fascinating in this version.
After the assassination, when Cassius suggests a proactive stance, the cautious Brutus makes a serious mistake and lets Antony declaim his “Friends, Romans and countrymen” speech.
“Brutus takes over, but not to the conspirators’ advantage,” Evans says, “Cassius was right.”
American-born actor Kenneth Ransom is playing Caesar and his uncanny resemblance to Barack Obama looks calculated.
“It is, very much so,” says Evans.
“Julius Caesar has great charisma, but he’s also funny at times and he’s not too much of a vile tyrant in this version.”
Audiences should also prepare for a couple of other casting surprises. Antony is played by Sara Zwangobani and Octavius by Emily Havea who, he notes, “has the last line of the play, letting us see the next generation of leaders”.
Evans is not keen to make heavy allusions to contemporary political assassinations, saying: “Audiences will draw their own conclusions, especially in Canberra.”
He believes the content is relevant to Australia but equally relevant all over the world, hence the international-looking cast of 10.
“Much more diverse than any other cast we’ve ever had,” he says.
Bell Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, The Playhouse, October 12-18.